Monday, June 26, 2006

Taking Wuyi Mountain (By Strategy), Pt. 2

Continuing on with my trip to Wuyi Mountain, probably the highlight was taking a raft down the Nine Twists River. The river is very shallow as it winds its way through the mountains. The mode of transportation was small rafts made of bamboo tied together, with two men with poles who guide our way through. It's a popular tourist attraction and people line up for it like it was Disneyland.

You can notice the umbrellas and plastic rainjackets, it was raining really hard when the ride first started, but quickly got better. In a way that was for the best. It made the river a little rougher, at times it almost resembled white water rafting. What more to say? I'll just link up a few pictures, I hope it comes across how amazingly beautiful the whole ride was.

At the end of all of this was some ancient colleges, smallish compounds where the old-school version of graduate students would prepare for the incredibly demanding Imperial Examinations. Some of the associated scholars are very famous to the people I was with, and there were even calligraphy examples about a thousand years old from masters!

A side note: almost every Chinese person will tell you that the place where they were born has both the most beautiful scenery and the most delicious food. I'm no exception, so perhaps this extends beyond Chinese people...anyway while Wuyi Mountain may have a claim at the most beautiful, from what I ate there's no way it could stake a claim to the most delicious food. The lunch & dinners I had, at four different restaurants in total, were all very similar and vaguely inedible, despite the immense appetite I had worked up. My favorite was the spicy bamboo shoots and Oolong-tea flavored Tofu, local specialties. I also thought this pork dish was OK, until I lifted up a piece and saw one side was covered in fur! The people I was with told me that's how country-area restaurants go. There was no convenience store pre-prepared food or fast food to get as an alternative. Normally that wouldn't really be a problem, but I was really looking around for something.

Moving on, I hiked the also transcendant Heavenly Tour Peak. It was really very impressive, although many of the views resembled the views I showed in Pt. 1, so I won't go on too much about it. There were some impressive views of the Nine Twists River, showing through the fog:

Wuyi Mountain City is small, a lot of the city housing looked like what is shown to the left. Most of the town seems to revolve around selling things to the tourists. Our tour guide led us to a few group buying sessions. That might sound like a rip-off, but they were actually extremely entertaining. At the one pictured below, the company's chief salesman and the seller engaged in some incredibly heated group bargaining for a variety of local products. Some people ended up getting bags and bags of stuff, but I only ended up getting a single bag of Oolong tea. Very high quality, but not well-packaged like you would want for a gift. It was sold at about $7 for half a pound. To me it seems like a lifetime supply, but other people were buying multiple bags, in addition to the more well-packaged teas.

All around town they sold alcohol with snakes in it. I tried a little bit and found the taste surprisingly mellow. I'm guessing it comes from all the herbs, and that the snake has almost no influence on the taste of the alcohol.

I really enjoyed this trip and would definitely recommend it to anyone in Shanghai with a free weekend. On the other hand, a lot of people told me Yellow Mountain, inland from Shanghai, is much the same but even more beautiful. I'll have to give it a look!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Taking Wuyi Mountain (By Strategy), Pt. 1

I hesitated a little when first asked if I wanted to go on the company field trip to Wuyi Mountain. "I must think about it," I said. What I really meant was "I have never before heard of Wuyi Mountain, and must look it up on the Internet."

But of course I said yes, and I'm right glad that I did! Wuyi Mountain is in Fujian Province, near the coast and right across from Taiwan. Looking on the web, I learned it was also the area Hakka people are from, I thought it was somewhere west of Canton or something.

The company went there by taking the overnight 13 hour train. I've only taken the train once before in China, for the one-hour trip from Suzhou to Shanghai. Taking the overnight was very different. The train cars are real small and it's stacked three beds high. There were three dimensions of pain involved: first, as a very tall person, I was slightly longer than the bed itself. Secondly, the bed was very narrow, and certainly not wide enough for me to crouch in my sleep. I imagine if I was overweight it would be difficult just to fit! Third, there wasn't much headroom, not enough to sit up even.

The problems are worse when you have the top bunk. The bottom bunks are best, but during the day they're used as a couch by all the people in the above bunks. In the end it was no problem because I knew all the other people in the other bunks, but it would be really annoying to travel by yourself with such a set up. Anyway during the day we played this amazingly complicated card game. It was fun but even if I learned the rules, I'm still entirely lost about the strategies.

A serious bummer was that lights went out at 10, and the commotion started at 6 the next morning. I had a hard time sleeping on the train, and was unbelievably tired. Still I was stunned looking out the window of the train. I've barely been outside of Shanghai. With knowing naivite, I tell my friends that Shanghai is just another city, and China and the US are basically the same. But looking out the window it looked like a different world:

I definitely want to have a look at such an area sometime. Maybe visiting here would be something like kicking it with the Amish. Cattle were used to draw plows, and hills were terraced into irregular planes and used to harvest rice, often by hand. The best photo I got of that is a zoom from the above picture:

On arriving we first checked in to our hotel. Shanghai keeps Christmas signs up throughout winter, it's different but I think it's pretty chill, keeping the Christmas spirit going. However this hotel still had Santas up in June, and so did some of the other fancier hotels and restaurants throughout town. And it should be mentioned, the whole trip was one of the dreaded Chinese tour guided trips, hilarious! They had the flags and the whole business, they even had a small megaphone but they only used it once or twice. Anyway they were surprisingly not annoying, and they kept the whole thing orderly. To my complete shock I didn't mind it and would consider using one again, at least for a short vacation.

The first think we did was climb some mountains. When I got my first look I don't know what to say. It was so beautiful I wanted to cry. I'd have to visit the big island of Hawai'i again to really say for certain, but it may have been the most impressive nature I've ever seen in my life. Photos don't quite capture it:

The paths were well-defined, often with stairs cut into the mountainside. Some sections could be extremely steep, and it was raining real hard at times. So there'd be a line of people, one after the other, going up a single step at a time. It sounds annoying but the view was so impressive I could have cared less. In retrospect, maybe I should have been scared - if one person had fallen on the steep slippery steps, everybody behind them would have followed like Dominos!

The cliffs were stark. Walking through them evoked all the cliches as once: walking through a Chinese painting, walking through a Martian landscape, etc...

There were a few pieces of historical interest scattered throughout. This Buddha, carved out of the rock, was impressive, although it looks like a modern re-construction:

Also scattered about were tea groves. They were so scenic and small, I at first thought they were purely for decoration, until I noticed it was one scenic and small grove after the other:

I'll have more to say and more scenery to show in part two, in the next couple of days.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Riding the Bike

I remember as a college student, getting in a small bicycle crash, and complaining to a classmate about how crazy bicycling could be. She just didn't see it. "I was raised in China..." she explained. Say no more.

Bicycling in Shanghai is out of control. It depends where you are - on highways, obviously, and on the main roads in the center of town, bicycles aren't permitted. Elsewhere, there can be swarms of bicycles:

Still, I imagine the crowds are much worse in other cities of China, many of which are missing either a subway system, or an extensive series of busses.

I don't see the stereotypical underpowered scooter loaded down with a family, their pet dog, and a large refrigerator or two. To be fair, I do see these push-cart bikes, often loaded down with so much they can barely be moved, perhaps requiring a friend on a scooter to help pull them.

Bikes are common throughout Shanghai, perhaps especially on the less developed parts of town beyond the reach of public transport. I'm not sure on an exact breakdown, but I'd guess it's about half bicycles, and the rest is a combination of electric mopeds, electric scooters, and gasoline powered scooters:

Shanghai used to have gasoline mopeds, but they were phased out, beoming illegal on Shanghai streets as of half a year ago. Also illegal on Shanghai streets are extremely large-engined motorcycles such as Harley Davidsons, for reasons of noise and pollution. I told some people about my father's Harley Davidson, they found the top speed and so forth kind of ludicrous. I understand Harley Davidson does operate some dealerships in China, but you have to park them outside of most large cities. Anyway, you do see a few smaller-engined motorcycles in Shanghai. Mostly they're operated by the police, or as independent taxis, generally lined up near certain subway stations.

I'll admit I totally want an electic scooter or moped. Why? First of all, because they only cost $200 or so - although a bike goes for maybe $30, a gas scooter for maybe $300. Secondly because they are stealth. Even a bicycle makes small noises, you can notice them when they come up on you. Electric bikes are totally quiet and way sneaky. They surprise me every time, at least they do in the rare case when the driver isn't leaning on his horn. They're even sold at department stores in Shanghai:

So what stops me? For one thing, maybe the traffic in Shanghai is still too intimidating. Also, even though in most ways Shanghai is a very very safe city, bike theft is very common, I know one guy who had three bikes stolen in one year! To prevent theft, some of the bikes have some serious locks on them:

During the winter, a lot of powered bicycles will have mittens attached to the bike handles, to keep your hands protected from the cold wind. They also lock your hands in places and I'm sure they result in some really ugly accidents. Even though it's June, this bike still hasn't had its mittens taken off:

A lot of the bikes are old and not in the best of condition, and batteries need charging, so there's an equally huge amount of small bike shops. My apartment complex has a guy who sits by the side wall and fixes bike problems, he also repairs shoes. Here's another roadside shack, it has parts and is probably about as large and thorough as these places get:

I should mention, these bikes are kings of the road. Cars at least feel an obligation to slow down for large masses of pedestrians. But bikes will never stop for anything - when the roads are crowded with them, it can be tough to cross the street!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Some More Meta-Blogging

I try to keep this blog about the Slums of Shaolin rather than about me, but a few random salient points:

- I've been slow on updates lately. I really do plan to make this blog two updates/week. That should start soon, but lately I've been way busy with travelling, Visa red-tape, and studying lingo. I should have an update tommorow and another a few days after that, and I'll get to work correcting errors in earlier updates.

- A lot of the photos are now being taken with my cool new Panasonic FZ7! It definitely should result in better pictures in a wider range of settings, and the super-zoom is very handy. I still use my old Canon A510 because it fits in the pocket easier. I also got a camera cell phone, the quality sucks but it's a good spycam so I'll probably use it from time to time.

- Probably everybody reading this from China knows about Anonymouse, which easily allows one to circumvent Chinese censorship. For those who use the Firefox browser, I found an add-on that makes using Anonymouse a simple right-click.

- Big ups to Shanghai blogger Micah Sittig, who has referred to this blog a few times and subsequently gotten me mentioned in UCB's conservative student newspaper, among other places.

- Don't know if it will interest a single person who isn't related to me, but I'm looking into giving this blog a vanity-press run if it's cheap & easy to set up. More later if that happens.

- If anybody is reading this from Shanghai and wants to jam the Hawaiian music, give a holler either to jeff oaktowncrack com or as a response on this page. If anybody has anything they're interested in me writing about, the same.

- I won't blog about it, but here are my photos to Zhujiajiao, a water-town near Shanghai.

- For those in Shanghai, I noticed bootlegs of "Suzhou River" at the video store on 42 Tianlin St., near Qinzhou St. I believe it's the best Shanghai movie ever, and worth a watch. I'm sure you can find it elsewhere, but on the other hand it is officially banned in China and I hadn't seen it around before. I've mentioned this movie before on the blog.

- Last but certainly not least, congratulations to Tina, Libor, Dave, Emiko, & Sophia on coming nuptials!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Seoul: Castles!

As a final word on Seoul, I'd like to show a few pictures of the castles that dot the city. They add something to the character of the city, giving it an ancient quality that's missing in most of the other cities I've either lived in or visited - including Shanghai.

I'll start with Gyeongbokgung Palace, which was essentially the central Palace to Korea since 1395. It's very large. Unfortunately it was destroyed by the Japanese during the occupation, and has been re-built as a series of identical empty concrete buildings with a half-hearted historic facade. It's ugly, but the location is still amazing - right near the downtown on one side, and facing beautiful mountains on the other. It featured hundreds of people re-enacting palace pagaentry in colorful traditional Korean clothing.

Similar, but more impressive and containing much of the original building construction, was the nearby Changdeokgung palace. Unlike Gyeongbokgung, touring was limited to guided tours, so it lacked a parade-type atmosphere. One of the more impressive points will sound really boring: the beautiful sloped rooves and roof tiles.

But definitely the most impressive castle in Seoul I ran into by accident: Changyeonggung.

You can see from the above photos, when I went there they were having a really interesting traditional musical performance.

Traditional clothes are always more interesting once the show's over:

The castle is very well preserved, instead of being destroyed during the Japanese colonization it was used as a zoo. That sounds like an unimaginable insult until you stroll the palace grounds. They're large and expansive, and even though there's a lot of buildings towards the entrance, overall there's a feeling of being inside a large park.

There's a connecting bridge to Jongymo Royal Shrine, where I managed to miss a huge annual rite by a few hours. Anyway I wandered around the parks out front, where a seemingly endless supply of weird older people of indeterminate housing status did weird things.

I also want to mention Suwon. It's not really a suburb of Seoul, and is very far away, but I still managed to take a subway there. It took about an hour and a half, and I feel the train would have been a better option. For those in the know, riding Seoul subways is just like being on the set of "My Sassy Girl," which is awesome. Anyway, the reason to go to Suwon was both to get out of Seoul and to check out the fort in the downtown area.

I have to say, the actual fort was really boring. The main attraction seemed to be that it was used in the historical soap opera "Jewel in the Palace," which was supposedly really fun, and was popular throughout East Asia. Much more impressive was the large city walls, which are on the top of a rather steep series of hilltops that surround much of the city's downtown.

You have a very impressive view of the city's features, such as this large church - Seoul seems to be an even mix of Buddhism and Christianity, and both of these seem to be much more publicly practiced in Seoul than anywhere else I've been.

Most of the outer wall and the associated attractions were under construction. However what I went to was really impressive. I'm sure that when the site is finished it will be a must-visit attraction to those visiting Seoul - or anywhere in Korea, really. I was surprised to find that South Korea can be entirely traversed with a two-hour train ride!

Friday, June 02, 2006

Seoul: The Scene

In San Francisco and the cities I've lived in, I've thought of myself as a bit of a scenester. I can't make any grandiose claims, but I know the clubs and the weird fringe events and the best local bands and so forth. I had every intention of keeping the noble tradition up when I came to Shanghai, but I think Shanghai's nightlife is pretty much non-existant unless you are looking for a prostitute or have extremely low quality standards. I'll have more to say about it later.

For now, suffice is to say that Seoul's night life is much better, and I have pictures to prove it! I'll start with this one:

That photo was taken near the City Hall, but really there's half a dozen districts that I could have shown pictures of, areas that are intensely populated and brightly lit at night, even late on a weekday. The obvious comparison is when I've visited Tokyo, and comparing the two I think Seoul comes up short to some of Tokyo's districts. But in terms of being bright and crowded and having lots of people around, it definitely beats anywhere in, say, New York City or San Francisco.

Maybe the nightlife isn't all to an American's taste, however. It's dominated by bar-restaurants like a Japanese izakaya, the idea is you eat a bunch of Korean food and drink a lot of soju and beer while you're at it - separating nightlife from my update on Seoul's food is a little artificial. A lot of the places say "Hof" in their name, as in "Hof Brau." I haven't been to Germany or the UK, but I think an English style pub might be a better comparison.

Some of the places are massive or even chains, but as you can see above a lot of the places aren't much more than cubbyholes that might not be able to fit more than a single group of people. I'm sure once you know your way around it's a lot of fun.

But I didn't always take pictures of everything, and this blog is dictated by the pictures I take. I can't much talk about, say, Itaewon, a district dominated by foreigners, where even the city's official (and undeniably excellent) tourist brochure admits "a certain amount of risque entertainment is also available here." The only pictures I took were of the big fireworks show that happened in the middle of the district.

My memory was better with music. I wouldn't say Seoul has a great music scene, but at least it has a scene, and can even support music that's a little weird, or not related to the mainstream. The first music I saw was at Live Club Ssam, a somewhat hidden club with an art-warehouse feel, near Hongik University. Click on the link to hear crazy Korean pop music - basically if the club re-located to Shanghai my quality of life would go up at least 75%. I saw the band Strawberry 60's TV Show. Their blend of J-Pop and early 60s girl-group music (complete with choreographed dancing) was surprisingly catchy and natural and not-annoying, although maybe they were a little stretched to perform as a main act.

Afterwards I kind of wandered into a music club nearby with what I guess was a house band, a very technically talented group playing 80's hair metal type music. I couldn't tell if it was performed in irony or not, but the band was completely over the top and the music was fun.

As part of Seoul's Golden Week celebrations, there was a pretty large concert given near the World Cup stadium. It was raining and not many people came, but it was still a fun time. Particularly for me, as some San Francisco indie-pop kids were playing concerts there! Folk-rocker Mike Park, and Sonawon with Jenny Choi.

I had seen both of them before. I hadn't particularly cared for either of them, and seeing them again didn't change that. It was still fun to hear music from the old scene, though. Don't know if their music was a success, indie-pop isn't the sort of music that caters to outdoor stadiums, especially as the crowd that was mainly waiting for the Japanese band Nine. They're a bunch of asexual stars with an act aimed at teenagers, they had really good rapport with the audience and were generally fun, but their music was too cheesy and at times obviously canned.

My clear favorite was the Korean band that played. I'll try to get someone to help me romanize the name from the flier I took - my Korean is a little, uhhh, non-existant. However their music was fun 90s style rock. Their lead musician looks like a classical musician with his nylon guitar and conservative jacket, but the music was real bumping.

Oh! And the cafes were crazy, often selling coffee for $5 on up. Even Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, a common America-based chain that I thought might be a little cheaper, was selling at a price too expensive for me to ever pay for a cup of black coffee. Still, many of these cafes were very busy late into the night.