Lunch (Thoughts of Shanghai)


Late lunch was xiaolongbao from the original spot on Wudong Lu.

Still didn’t take a picture — ate them all with dark rice vinegar (the Zhenjiang variety of legendary origin) before I could even pull out my smartphone.

Later that day I would take a taxi to Pudong with several large bags and check in for a red-eye flight direct to LAX. First, I’d eat these eight dumplings — minced pork mixed with spring onion and aspic set inside circular unleavened dough wrappers then folded and pinched shut — directly from the bamboo steamer. These were the same ones I tried after arriving in Shanghai last year: the ones with vinegar poured in the same saucers, red chili sauce served with the same tiny spoons.

Exactly eight dumplings; no more, no less.

Continue reading “Lunch (Thoughts of Shanghai)”

Huangshan, the Mountains of Primordial Ink


Painting personified.

The colossal forces that formed the mountain range of granite peaks roughly 250 miles inland from what would later be known as the East China Sea succeeded in inspiring countless artists, poets, Buddhists, and travelers to imagine their world as crafted by powers greater than themselves.

An ancient titan drew up enormous mounds of earth from the Mesozoic sea floor¹ and took a hammer and chisel to the whole thing with reckless abandon. The mountains that remain are the work of that capricious giant.

Li Bai, the famous Tang Dynasty poet, once described the mountains: “The place is still traceable where the immortal/Before ascending to heaven made elixir out of jade.”

The scale and intensity of geologic change is unfathomable.

Humans call this mountain range shaped by the demiurges of time, tectonism, and erosion Huangshan (lit. Yellow Mountains).

Located in the south of modern-day province of Anhui, the 72 peaks of the Yellow Mountains still stand with 6,000-foot-tall shoulders above an ocean of clouds.

Climb

The UNESCO World Heritage Site asks much of its visitors.

The mountains require traversing endless paths of steep stone steps to truly appreciate the scene. These 60,000 steps are said to have taken over 1,500 years to carve out of the mountain.¹

For the countless porters laden with loads of food and supplies weighing more than they do, climbing the mountain unburdened would be no problem. The muscles in their calves are evidence enough that they could reach the peak in half the time it takes the average tourist. As such, the Yellow Mountains demand payment for their incredible vistas (and all the amenities available at the top of the mountain), and those who aren’t short-of-breath receive nothing in exchange. Sacrifice must be made for the mountains to rewards photographers with beautiful photos.

The mountains also require that artists portray their curves and juxtapositions beautifully. Chinese shan shui (山水) painting is a type of ink wash painting that is particularly well-suited to the natural aesthetics of Huangshan. The style of traditional Chinese painting has been used since the 5th century;² countless images of the mountains have been produced in the shan shui style since then.

Photographers have also adapted some elements of good shan shui painting to the different medium.

The Yellow Mountains and their surrounding villages draw thousands of visitors every year. The villages of 宏村//hong2cun1 and 西递村//xi1di4cun1 at the base of the mountains are renowned for their 600-year-old buildings³ and status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Scenes from the famous Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon film were filmed in Hongcun.

Gnarled trees clinging to unorthodox (and precipitous) formations of megalith aren’t the only draw to Huangshan. The location also produces some of the China’s most famous teas: Maofeng, and Keemun (祁门//qi2men2).

More information about Anhui’s Huangshan can be found on the local government website, which also features some incredible images and descriptions of the mountains’ most breath-taking sites.

Luoyang: A City from China’s Heartland


China was born here, in Henan.

The place is both unique and ubiquitous at the same time. As one of the 中国四大古都 (China’s Four Great Ancient Capitals), the city of Luoyang still embodies a part of China’s soul and history. The city was prominent as far back as 510 BCE as the capital of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty. This dynasty existed on the very edge of ancient Chinese history, directly following the quasi-mythic Xia Dynasty (2070-1600 BCE) and China’s first archaeologically proven dynasty, the Shang Dynasty of 1600-1046 BCE.

The Zhou Dynasty, which existed between 1046 and 256 BCE, is itself divided into the Western and Eastern eras, the latter of which encompassed the Spring and Autumn period and the subsequent Warring States period when monarchical authority crumbled and various minor kingdoms rose and fell.

As such, Luoyang represents an era that later marked a critical turning point in Chinese history. With the fall of the Zhou Dynasty came the rise of the first dynasty of Imperial China, the Qin Dynasty, whose initial emperor unified six of the warring states. His accomplishments are forever commemorated by his massive mausoleum (still being excavated today) and the famous Terracotta Army in Xi’an.

Remnants of the past still persist in Henan. Luoyang’s 白马寺//bai1ma3si4 (White Horse Temple) is traditionally thought to be the “cradle of Chinese Buddhism,” as the first Buddhist temple in China. The temple’s historical roots stretch all the way back to 68 CE, when it was constructed under Emperor Ming after having a vision of the Buddha in gold.¹

***

Astounding in their size and quality, the Longmen Grottoes on their own are worth the trip to Henan. The incredible grottoes feature Buddhist figures carved directly into the limestone hillside.

The site was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, with its 2,000+ caves, 100,000 statues, and over 60 pagodas.² Most of these are over 1,000 years old, dating back to the culturally and socially inspired Tang Dynasty before Emperor Wuzong’s xenophobic Great Anti-Buddhist Persecution that attempted (and, in some cases, succeeded) to purge nonnative religious influences.

However, Longmen’s enormous carvings survived until modern times for flocks of tourists to stand in awe and selfie.

Hohhot, Inner Mongolia in Parcels


I bought 8 pairs of chopsticks for like 3 bucks at the market kinda near the Temple and kinda far from the Mosque. Stored them loosely in my back pocket and thought for a second that, while I had my back turned when paying for my entrance ticket, the beggars would swipe them from me if I didn’t placate them with cash.

This thought was foolish, I admit. Here in the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, the rules had changed on me, and I was taken off-guard. People spoke dialects that I didn’t understand, and Mongolian was on signs and in the streets. People consumed dairy products here?

In a land of jade, Inner Mongolia was crystallized amber.

Continue reading “Hohhot, Inner Mongolia in Parcels”

Being Above Ground in Fujian: A Travelogue


Very unique. Not like being above ground in other places.

DAY ONE: Took the metro to the far corner of Shanghai to fly SHA>>XMN. Just the journey to the airport itself took nearly two hours. Shangers is ridiculously large. Man sitting opposite me clipped his fingernails directly onto the floor as one does on the subway.

Flight was comfortable, minimal amounts of stares directed at the tall white boy sitting 24C.

Continue reading “Being Above Ground in Fujian: A Travelogue”

The One Indispensible Thing I Carried in Hong Kong


I brought it with me on the Star Ferry, in Kowloon, to Tai O Village and Victoria Peak…

I brought it with me when the weather was mutable and when it wasn’t. Half the time, I had it tucked away in my backpack and didn’t reach for it at all. The other half of the time, I had it above my head, fighting against the rain.

When it wasn’t pleasant outside, some had it brandished and waving, shielding their eyes and skin from the misty spray.

Continue reading “The One Indispensible Thing I Carried in Hong Kong”

Two from Jiangsu: Suzhou


Suzhou is silk, gardens, and Green Snail Spring.

That is: Biluochun (碧螺春//bi4luo2chun1), which is yet another of China’s most famous teas. It’s so named because it’s a green tea, rolled into a spiral resembling snail meat, and harvested in early spring. This tea has a very light, sweet flavor with a delicate floral aftertaste. Many experts rank this tea just as highly as Hangzhou’s Longjing.¹

Biluochun

Suzhou is also renowned for fine silks and embroidery. The Suzhou-style (苏绣//Su1xiu4) has a history of over 2000 years and is noted for its pastel coloration and masterful depiction of environment scenes like flowers, birds, animals, and gardens.² The tiles were taken at a small gallery showcasing the silk embroidery.

The classical gardens of Suzhou are a UNESCO World Heritage site and well-loved tourist destinations at any given time. These gardens, built during the Northern Song Dynasty until the late Qing Dynasty (11th-19th century), have nearly a thousand years’ history. Mostly built by wealthy scholars, they mimic in microcosm natural scenes of mountains, hills, rivers, and forests.

Arguably the best and most prominent of the city’s classical gardens is the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which seamlessly melds natural scenes (eg. plots of flowers or trees) with human architecture (pagodas and stained glass windows). Once you’ve been here, all other gardens pale in comparison, really.

You won’t enjoy the handcrafted beauty in solitude, though — you’ll enjoy it in noisy peace and collective excitement. You’ll have to be patient if you want to take a photo of the scenery without other tourists in the shot (if that’s your MO). In comparison, you might not have to wait as long to be pointed out as a laowai (if that’s your MO). The photos below I took while venturing off the main path to the behind-the-scenes bonsai potting area.

Two from Jiangsu: Nanjing


An ancient Chinese capital marked (but not marred) by recent history.

Before I came to China, I knew about Nanjing.

I knew about the war crimes committed there. I knew about the looting, arson, and destruction committed by the Japanese army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. I knew about the monstrosity of rape and murder that occurred there. The horrifying details (which I’ll not name, but can be accessed here) I had mostly put out of mind. Physical and mental distance from the massacre coupled with a human desire to not dwell in past atrocity let me forget how terribly gruesome and inhuman we humans can be. The Rape of Nanjing is an apt name for this massacre of human life and morality.

I went to Nanjing to see the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. I saw the mass grave where corpses — infant, child, teen, young adult, adult, middle-aged, and elderly alike — were buried hastily and indiscriminately. I saw signs bearing the unholy number 300,000 and the monuments erected in memoriam.

But Nanjing, due to and despite its history, is much more than historicity.

The city is authentic, the people and places genuine. Events big and small happened here, and will continue to do so for a long, very long time. The actions we take in Nanjing are a real part of what Nanjing is. You’re part of the scene, as is everyone else. That means other tourists will sneak a photo of you or take it overtly with gusto. If you’re not asked for your permission beforehand, then, well, speak up or get over it.

It should be noted that Nanjing is home to the BEST potstickers in China. Ground meat (usually pork) with green onions or spinach wrapped with thin pieces of dough into half-moon-shaped pockets then pan-fried in a large, shallow wok — what could possibly go wrong there? Somewhere near the eastern entrance to the city’s Purple Mountain scenic park you can find the best of the best.

Nanjing Potstickers

The beautiful Purple Mountain scenic area [Tiles 1-4] is much bigger than you think. You could wander around the park’s trails, temples, Ming Dynasty palace and tombs for days, but you’re here to see Dr. Sun Yat-Sen’s Mausoleum [Tiles 5-8]. The 中山陵 (zhong1shan1 ling2) commemorates the life and accomplishments of one of greater China’s most formative leaders.

Sun is well-respected in both China and Taiwan despite lingering ideological (and subsequently, separatist) disputes from the Chinese Civil War, in which Sun’s Kuomintang, under the leadership of Chiang Kaishek, played a central part. He is seen as the “Father of the Nation” (国父 孫中山先生) in Taiwan or the “forerunner of democratic revolution” (革命先行者) in the PRC because of his role in ending Qing dynastic rule and establishing the Republic of China.¹

Nanjing’s most famous Confucius temple, Fuzimiao, has 11th century roots as a temple and university, though the standing building dates from the 19th century Qing Dynasty.² The temple and nearby complex were restored in 1985 after it was used as army barracks during the Kuomintang regime of the late 1920s and early ’30s.²

The city’s downtown food scene is incredible. Surrounding the Fuzimiao and all along the nearby Qinhuai River are countless made-to-order buffets. The food is cheap and unbelievably tasty, and the restaurants are an absolute melee by lily-livered Western standards. Speak Chinese or no, you will get lured, smooth-talked, and/or berated into buying far too many dishes. Just go with it — you won’t regret it anyway. Personal recommendations are the tangbao//汤包 (like a giant xiaolongbao eaten with a straw and chopsticks) and whatever the sweet, jelly, fruity soup is below.

Once you’ve had a nice, over-sized lunch, take a walk along the ancient city wall to digest — you’ll need to make room for dinner.

Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province


Sunshowers in China’s inimitable tea capital.

Without a doubt, it will start raining while you search for the aptly underwhelming Old Dragon Well, the namesake of Hangzhou’s most famous export: Longjing tea (龙井茶//long2jing3 cha2). However, you’ll find a place to stop for lunch and a couple cups of tea because of the fickle weather. Whether you’re a beginner or connoisseur, you’ll recognize that the Dragon Well tea is incomparable. Surprisingly full-bodied (sweet, slightly nutty) with pleasant earthy and floral undertones, Longjing tea is considered by some to be the best green tea in the world.

Old Dragon Well

Several legends connect the now world-famous Longjing tea to Emperor Qianlong. While in Hangzhou, the Emperor visited the Hugong Temple on Lion Peak Mountain (狮峰山//shi1feng1shan1) and was presented a cup of Longjing produced from 18 trees near the temple. He was so impressed that he conferred them the honor of 贡茶//gong4cha2, or imperial status tea (also, tribute tea). Tea is still produced from those 18 trees and is sold for more money per gram than gold.¹

The famous West Lake that inspired artists and emperors is very much “an idealized fusion between humans and nature.”² The tiles below depict the bridges and boats that allow visitors to themselves become a part of this beautiful fantasy.

If China is the green tea capital of the world, then Hangzhou is the capital of capitals. Any trip there would be incomplete without traversing the tea-growing hills east of the West Lake and seeing the Lion Peak Mountain itself. Green leaves, whose precise preparation contributes to its celebrated status as much as its remarkable flavor, are arranged in terraced rows of hedges to soak in the sun and rain. Their fate is a kettle of boiled water halfway around the world.