Letters From China (Winter 2007-8)

A decade later, I’m in Korea suffering below freezing temperatures and I *still* ended up with a rainy Christmas instead of a white one. Let’s go back in time and look at my first snow in China. Also that winter I discovered my favorite “traditional” cold remedy, went to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors, found out I was allergic to tigers, and visited what later became my favorite temple in the world (so far). Hop in the Way Back Machine with me.


Dec 13, 2007 at 2:22pm

A couple of days ago on Monday we had our first snow. The internet’s been mostly out since then, so this is the first opportunity I’ve had to post the pics I took.

Starting out leaving my apartment going to class in the morning.

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It kept snowing all through class, and on my way home, I spotted some mischief makers throwing snowballs and took some more pictures of the snow covered trees.

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I thought the red berries were particularly striking, and the little winter sparrows were adorable.

On my way to class on Tuesday morning, I found some snowmen that had apparently been constructed the evening before, not all of them survived the students’ rambunctious winter games, but at least they look happy. (Don’t ask me why they have antlers, because I really have no idea)

Dec 21, 2007 at 11:34pm

I’ve had a cold for about a week now, which royally sucks cause its hung on through my birthday and finals week and so far three Christmas parties. Last night after a class party, I went by my regular restaurant to get some dinner. I’ve mentioned before that I go to this one place nearly every day, sometimes twice a day. The lady who works there (her name is Lian) is super nice and the food is pretty good and reasonably cheap (if a little oily). They’ve even got an English menu now, since a student translated it for us. I’ve been going there every day for 4 months, and we’re developing a friendship. We chat to the best of my limited Chinese ability whenever she’s not too busy.

I must’ve looked as bad as I felt, because she asked if i was sick, and I told her i had a head cold, but it would be ok because I had some medicine at home, which I do. She said that she never takes medicine for that, but eats oranges and drinks soup and 姜丝可乐.

Here I was sure my translation was way off, because I could swear she was talking to me about boiling coca cola. I looked at her like she was crazy (just about the same way she looked at me for drinking 7-Up when I had that stomach flu), but she kept insisting it was the best thing, and finally sensing I hadn’t fully grasped her meaning, she wrote it down for me.

I’m a curious person, and I look it up on the internet (here some credit to Adam, who was online chatting with me at the time and opened a page for me I couldn’t get to so I could discover the meaning) for jiang si ke le.

“Jiang si” is ginger, and “ke le” is cola (any of the dark cola drinks), and once I knew what I was looking for, I searched for it in English, and found several blogs mostly from other expats who had learned of it from theirChinese friends.

You take a can of Coke (opinions differ as to whether or not you can sub Pepsi or generic brand, but everyone insists you need the sugar and caffeine, so no diet!), and pour it in a saucepan to heat up.

You peel and mince/chop/grate a LOT of ginger, I couldn’t find a specific amount, but it seems the more the better and you’re aiming for at least one decent sized 2-3 inch piece, maybe more.

Then when the Coke is hot, you add the ginger and simmer for a few more minutes, pour it into your mug and enjoy! (being sure to eat at least some of the ginger pieces too)

Now, most people hear hot Coke and think of a can or bottle that’s been left in the car on a hot sunny day, but I can assure you it is nothing like that. In fact, its really nothing like Coke. But it IS tasty and it DID make me feel better for at close to 8 hrs (and even now as its wearing off, I still feel marginally better than this morning before I had it).

I went back to the restaurant this evening for dinner, and told Lian I had tried her suggestion and it really helped, and she informed me I needed to drink one cup of it every day till I was better, so I’m gonna keep going.

The only downside is that between the caffine and the ginger, your metabolism speeds up enough that you wouldn’t want to drink it before bedtime, however as a morning or afternoon pick-me-up when sick, I highly recommend it.

What’s more, its a pleasant hot drink, so even if you don’t have a cold, you can still give it a try (though I would suggest using less ginger for a non-medicinal version).

*2017 Note: I still love this remedy. The only reason I haven’t been using it this year is because Korea sells these jars of sliced ginger and lemon in honey and you just put a spoonful in hot water and bam, instant “tea”.

Jan 6, 2008 at 11:28am

I’m back from Xi’an. It was really cool, I’m really tired, I took almost a whole gig worth of photos and video, and I found out I’m allergic to tigers…

Xi’an City

These are from my trip to Xi’an in January. The first is a picture of the old city wall.

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The bell and drum towers are some of the oldest structures in the city, they date back to the Tang Dynasty, and hold HUGE instruments a bell and drum respectively, which were used in Buddhist rituals.

And because it is so far west, there is a large Muslim population in Xi’an, creating the city’s Muslim quarter.

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The city wall is the only complete city wall in China, though most cities still have remnants of their old protective barriers, Xi’an has reconstructed the entire wall. Of course the city is quite a bit bigger now, so its more like a wall around the city center, but its really amazing, and I’m kind of sad I only got night shots, because its hard to really grasp the size and scope of this wall that encircles a part of the city equivalent to downtown, cap hill and the u dist., maybe more. You can actually walk around the entire thing, and there are a limited number of gates which makes the flow of traffic in and out a little… interesting.

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Qinling Zoological Park

This was the zoo/park/safari/circus thing I went to in January in Xi’an.

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I had to ride the bus for over 2 hrs to get there, but it was pretty cool. I hope to be able to go back when the weather is nicer and things are greener. (an interesting side note, this trip was one of my biggest tests of comfort and Chinese ability, since the bus my map said to take wasn’t on the hotel’s map and I had to ask the hotel, a traffic cop, and two bus drivers all in Chinese to find where I was supposed to be, and it took three buses to get there)

We start off with the entrance walkway, which is probably way cooler in the summer, but there were lots of interesting carvings in the trees.

Next I got on a bus to drive thru the safari part. The first half was just farm animal type things, there should have been more interesting animals like giraffes and whatnot, but the weather was too cold. The second half is carnivores, and while I had read in reviews that they enticed them near the bus with meat treats, this was not true. The photos aren’t great because I had no zoom on my camera, but it really was a neat experience to have nothing between me and those carnivores but a bus window.

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Then we move on to the walking area, where you can walk around and see various animals in cages and on chains (unfortunately). Many were missing, the flamingos, the pandas, the warm weather creatures, so this part was a little disappointing, but still interesting.

And last but not least was the animal show. This was everything animal rights activists will not let circuses do anymore in America. Dancing bear and tiger’s jumping through hoops of fire, and at the end, I paid an extra 10kuai to have my picture taken with a tiger, which was by far the highlight of the trip. You simply can’t appreciate how much cat is there from a picture or even at a zoo. WOW.

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2017 Note: When I went back in 2017, the conditions for the animals were much better. The habitats were improved, there were still too many bare boring cages, but at least animals weren’t being staked out on the path with chains. I didn’t put those pictures here because I didn’t want to ambush anyone with animal cruelty photos. in addition, the circus show had shortened the tiger performance by more than half and replaced the fire with flowers, then added human acrobats to fill the time. And there was no tiger petting at the end. I’m still glad I had the opportunity to get up close to this incredible animal, but I’m very happy that China is improving conditions in it’s zoos. I hope it keeps going.

Tang Dynasty Dinner Theater

Another event from the trip to Xi’an. We went to the dinner theater, had a whole bunch of dumplings many of which were shaped like the food they were filled with, and enjoyed some beautiful dance and music.

 

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a 7 story pagoda that was built many centuries ago. There was a sect of Buddhists that had not yet gone vegetarian, and when they were travelling and hungry, a wild goose threw itself to the ground for them to eat, inspiring them, ironically, to embrace ahimsa (nonviolence) to the point of vegetarianism and to build a temple on the site.

We start as I get out of the taxi at the far end of the north square, which is huge.

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Then we have to walk around the pagoda, because the entrance is on the south side.

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Then travel into the pagoda all the way to the top, all 7 very narrow stories of it.

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Then to the grounds and structures behind the pagoda.

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Finally ending the day with the night-time fountain show.

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Hope you enjoyed!

Da Cien Temple

Here are the promised photos of the Da Cien temple. This is the temple that is on the grounds of the Wild Goose Pagoda, so you’ll see the pagoda too.

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The photos don’t really do the white marble justice. I’ve never felt like such a geek, but it really made me feel like I was standing in Gondor.

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There are some beautiful carvings not only in the marble, but also in sandalwood, other walls and even some that look like paintings but are actually made of carved pieces of semiprecious stones (the ones in the next batch of photos are about 5 feet tall)

Unfortunately, it was very dark in there, so the image quality isn’t great, but it was truly amazing in person. Based on our crafts system, I’d have put this room at over 6 successes, because when I walked in I just stood and stared for I don’t know how long until some other tourist walked in. It was really the kind of art you can believe is inspired by true faith!

(for those who don’t know much about Buddhism, the mural depicts the life and enlightenment of the Buddha Gautama, starting with his mother being chosen, going thru is childhood, youth, adventures, enlightenment and post-enlightenment works)

Enjoy!

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*2017 Note: the craft system referenced is a way of marking the quality of imaginary crafts in a game setting. 1-5 are considered human achievements, 5 being the best. 6-10 are considered supernaturally beautiful and affect viewers in deeper ways. By saying this art was a 6, I was describing it at having that kind of supernatural quality that affected me more than just a pretty picture.

Terracotta Warriors

2017 Note: There is no writing about the Terracotta Warriors. I didn’t get around to it before I left China, and by then I didn’t need to write it on the board, since all those stories were just a way of keeping my friends and family up to date. Thinking back on my visits in 2008 and 2012, it’s a deeply overpowering experience. Buses leave from the city center as soon as they fill up, and people call out in the parking lot advertising for the ride to the site. It’s a long drive through farm country, although I do recall passing by a replica of the sphinx and pyramid of Giza on the way. Oh, China.

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The dig sites are covered with structures like airline hangars, and even though you are indoors, the space is vast. Many statues are still where they were buried and tourists look down on pits full of excavated warriors. A few have been removed to be studied and displayed and we can see the broken pieces and the restoration in progress. You can walk around for hours before covering all the ground and no two statues have the same face. The amount of labor boggles the mind.

It’s one of those experiences where, at the time you feel like each new statue deserves it’s own photo, and you keep finding better and better angles to showcase them from, and then later on you have a thousand nearly identical pictures which simply do not capture the feeling. Because it isn’t just the artistry, craftsmanship, or even the size or number (although all those things contribute), it’s the knowledge that you are walking in the earth that these artifacts were buried in for 2000 years. Museums are wonderful, but there is something special about being at the dig site, and because of the sheer scale, and the ongoing unearthing, that’s what I got viewing the Terracotta Warriors.

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I went back to Xi’an in 2012 as part of a holiday. Some of those pictures were better, and may have been substituted for quality. And there are hundreds of photos, the best of which I’ve put, as always, over on Facebook: Campus Snow, Xi’an City, Tang Dinner Theater, Qinling Park, Wild Goose Pagoda & North Square, Da Cien Temple, and Terracotta Warriors.

As I’ve been processing all these photos over the New Year’s weekend, two things have become painfully obvious. 1) whatever I was taking pictures with in 2007 was terrible. 2) My writing style has changed drastically in the last decade. Nowadays, a weekend like the one I spent in Xi’an would have been 3-4 posts of 3000+ words each. It’s not just about the word count, though. It’s the choice to use words to tell a story that pictures may compliment as opposed to using pictures with a few words about them. The story about jiangsikele is closer to my current style of prose, but only because I had no pictures to lean on. I like looking back on my photo albums, but I think 10 years from now me is going to like reading what I’ve written about my adventures as the Gallivantrix. I wonder what will change about me by 2028.

I hope you enjoyed this throwback post, and as always, thanks for reading!

 

 

The Souqs: A Week in Jeddah

I didn’t really want to go into many malls on my trip to Jeddah, but the souqs are the modern descendants of what once were the outdoor markets where farmers and traders would congregate to sell their wares. Its changed a lot since then, but I wanted to see it anyway. Al Balad has recently been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and has perhaps the best representation of what the old souq would have looked like, and Al Shati is up in one of the ritzier neighborhoods and is a pretty good representation of the modern souq. Enjoy!

Al Shati

Sadly, I have no pictures at all of this souq. I didn’t arrive until well after sunset on a Friday night, so the place was pretty much packed, and I didn’t want to upset anyone taking pictures with so many people.

This  souq is much more modern than Balad, but also smaller. There weren’t any multi story mall like buildings at all. On the outer fringes of the souq were some larger department stores. The souq itself was a sort of grid and multiple courtyard set up. See the satellite view on the map. There are two main courtyards that have a snack stand in the center, amusement rides for kids placed around the courtyard, and plastic bolted down chairs and tables in between.

It looks all nice and geometrical from the air, but on the ground its really disorienting, particularly since in addition to the air conditioned shops in the buildings, there are a myriad of tiny kiosks, carts and blanket top sellers in between them.

Not much ground to cover, but definitely plenty of shops. Every inch of building is a shop, plus all the ones in open space. I enjoyed going into the fancy abaya shops to see what the high class ladies of Jeddah were into. I have to admit, I’m a little jealous that we can’t wear more styles here in Tabuk, there were some really beautiful abayas there, and most of them weren’t too much more expensive than the ones I own.

I tried to find a new hijab that would be ok to wear in Tabuk but have a little bit of flair, but there just wasn’t anything like that. Everything was either very plain black or very very colorful.

There were also some nice jewelry places, selling gold and silver as well as other types. I’m not really that into jewelry, but I was looking for something nice to bring back to a friend in Tabuk. The silver is actually sold by weight, even when it is set with other stones, which I found interesting. Not a bad price, I guess. I found a delicate silver bracelet set with opals that would have been about 32$ US.

Remembering that Saudis tend to prefer gold, I found a little bracelet with heart charms on it, which she turned out to really like, so I feel like that was a mission accomplished.

I also found a really cheap clothing store where everything seemed to be 20 SAR (about 5$), so I got some clothes there. I got a pretty shimmery  skirt, that fabric that can’t make up its mind what color it is depending on how you look at it, sort of dusty rose and golden bronze. Its a little long, but I can hem it, and it follows my rule of not paying more than 5$ for clothes that need alterations. I got a lightweight black long sleeved open fronted shirt thing, since need stuff to wear over the tank tops at work. However, it tore in the laundry, so that may have been a mistake.

Finally, I found what may be the coolest steam punk skirt I’ve seen outside a cos-play competition. Its not real leather, but that’s ok. It’s also a teeny bit too small, but also way too long, so I’m just going to pull out the zipper and lower the whole waistline. Since I won’t be able to wear it until the winter sets in, or possibly until I get back to America, there’s no rush.

All in all, Shati isn’t pretty or historically significant, but its a fun place to shop that has a lot more character and flavor than a shopping mall.

Al Balad

This was one of my big to-do items since I found out I was coming to Saudi because of the UNESCO thing, so I set aside basically a whole day to to it, even though the souq doesn’t really get going until after 4pm. I got dropped of on the very edge of the neighborhood by a very passive aggressive taxi driver, and followed the stream of people walking toward the tall buildings while trying to puzzle over my gps map as to which direction I needed to go in.

It was just after Asr so still reasonably light. The first things I came across were tall mall like structures, but a little more like the Silk Market in Beijing than the other malls I’d seen in Saudi. Tall buildings stuffed with little stands and shops selling clothes, electronics, jewelry, perfume and shoes. Sadly, unlike the Silk Market, no shops selling artwork.

I drifted around several such buildings until I heard the call to Maghrib and sat down next to a fountain to wait for all the shops to reopen.

Finally, after leaving yet another high rise souq, I spotted some signs that pointed to the historical district. As I left the high rises behind, the area became a little shabbier but with a lot more character. There were a few permanent shade structures build over the main paths and an endless number of side alleys cross connecting the twisting roads. There were permanent shops with air conditioning along the larger paths, and people set up with rolling carts or even just blankets full of goods anywhere they could find a space.

More than anywhere else I’d been, I could see the influence of the Silk Road on the two cultures. The whole area reminded me of nothing so much as the Muslim Quarter in Xi’an, the former western capital city of China. It really felt like there was a path connecting the two points nearly a whole continent apart.

img_0167Eventually, after walking in a few circles, I found the historical center. I didn’t take many pictures in the souq because there were so many people, and its really rude to take pictures of people here, but I managed to snap a few of the landmarks.

Continuing on, I found the food area where fresh produce and meat was on display in every window and cart. And eventually wandered in to what seemed to be a home goods area. I’d clearly left the fashion/jewelry/perfume area and found the place where the locals came to get what they needed.

I parked it on a concrete block to wait out the Isha’a prayer closings, then set about to get my own shopping done. I wanted something to make my hijab easier (pins, clips, a different style, whatever), and I wanted my own shisha pipe (hookah). I knew I should be able to find both in Balad.

The first part was pretty simple, since there were tons of little stands selling abaya and hijab stuff. I wasn’t sure what to ask for, though, so I had to go by looking at what was on display. Eventually I found these little head band/do rag like things that are designed to go under the hijab. They cover the upper forehead and keep the bangs from falling. Also, they create a better surface for the hijab itself to drape on than hair which is pretty slippery.

I got two for 5 SAR each and man does it make a huge difference. I don’t think I’ll use them just going to and from school because there’s no point, but when I’m going shopping, especially if I’m walking in lots of wind, its great to know I have an easy way to keep the darn thing from slipping out of place and won’t have to be fighting with it every 5 minutes to hide my hair again.

The shisha pipe was more challenging. I’d tried to find one in Tabuk to no avail, and I’d asked some folks online who lived in Jeddah where to go, but really didn’t get any solid answers (you know, like an actual store name and Saudi version of address) just vague areas of town, or even whole roads with no cross streets. Google was also no help, since as I observed previously, most businesses aren’t registered with them, so don’t show up in searches or on maps.

After almost 4 hours of wandering the Balad neighborhood and various souqs without spotting a single shisha, I finally decided to bite the bullet and ask for directions. Its not that I’m opposed to asking for directions. I love asking for directions, but cultural barriers such as language, gender and people trying to sell me stuff I don’t want made me hesitant to talk to anyone in the souq.

I picked out one of the home wares shopkeepers, figuring his livelihood relied less on tourists than on regulars, and tried my Arabic, amounting to the very complex sentence “where shisha?”. Hard to mess that one up. He seemed surprised (women don’t often smoke in public), and repeated shisha? miming the act of smoking the water pipe. Nam, yes. I replied. He did some pointing and gesturing while describing directions in Arabic I had no hope of understanding, but the gestures were clear, go back up this road and turn left. So I thanked him, figuring that if all else failed, I would ask directions again in a couple blocks.

As it turns out, they were excellent directions. I took the first left and almost immediately ran into a small shisha shop. The men inside were very young, they looked like high schoolers, and I assumed their family must own the shop for them to be working in it. One of them spoke very good English and they were quite pleased to help me out.

The young man made sure that his compatriots didn’t short weigh the shisha tobacco I bought, made sure to take apart and reassemble the pipe so I could see how it worked, and threw in some foil. I don’t know if I should have haggled, or if I could have gotten a better price, but I got the pipe with a nice hard-sided/padded interior carrying case, a half kilo of shisha, a huge box of coconut husk coals, and a box of shisha foil for less than 30 USD, and they were nice, so I’m not going to complain.

My missions all accomplished, sight seeing and shopping, I legged it over to a larger road to catch a taxi back to the hotel. Definitely a place worth wandering around. Pretty sure you can buy anything that’s for sale in the Kingdom here, and its pretty. I didn’t get to see the Museum because it was closed by the time I found it, but it gives me something to look forward to on another trip.