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”

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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 flooded with tourists at all times. 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.

However, you won’t be able to enjoy the crafted beauty in peace or solitude — consider yourself extremely lucky if you can manage to take a photo of the scenery without masses of tourists in the shot. (They’ll also make sure to promptly point out in Chinese that you are, in fact, a laowai). The photos below I took while finding respite in 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 scenery, as is everyone else. That means tourists will take your picture with gusto, without a second thought, and certainly without asking.

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.

Interestingly, 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 is also noteworthy. The 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, in classic Chinese style, the restaurants are an absolute melee. Speak Chinese or no, you will get lured, smooth-talked, and/or generally berated into buying far too many dishes. As with most things in China, just go with it. 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.

History is Long, Chinese History is Longer: Beijing


I visited this city of history in the middle of winter.

Blisteringly windy and outfitted for Californian cold, Beijing was rough. Luckily, I was rewarded for my efforts with some incredible sights.

The photos below were taken in front of, inside, and behind Beijing’s most famous landmark: the Forbidden City. This cultural and historical monolith is “remarkable” many times over. The 980-building and 160-acre palace complex was the seat of the Ming and Qing Dynasties for nearly 500 years (1420-1912 CE).¹ It took 14 years to construct, more than a million workers, whole logs of precious wood from southwest China, marble from quarries outside Beijing, and specially baked tiles imported from Suzhou.¹ Perhaps the most famous part of this already world-famous structure is the Tiananmen Gate adorned with Mao Zedong’s universally recognized portrait [Tile 1], which separates the Forbidden City’s Imperial Palace from Tiananmen Square, the scene for some of China’s most pivotal moments in history.

Beijing’s night markets are known for their unorthodox selection of meats — notably, silk worms, starfish, and scorpions. Hawkers are well-versed in both Mandarin and English and will prepare an assortment of expensive culinary curiosities for you at the drop of a hat.

UNESCO World Heritage site and a modern wonder of the world, the Great Wall of China is truly incomparable. The Wall is actually a multitude of interconnected, behemoth fortification structures built as early as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE), some of which can still be seen near Dunhuang, Gansu Province.² The part of wall closest to Beijing receives the vast majority of tourists and is also the most recent, built during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE). The majority of what exists of the 10,000+ mile-long defensive barrier is the 5,500 mi (8,850 km) Ming Dynasty structure.²

Yet another of Beijing’s copious UNESCO sites is the Temple of Heaven. Also constructed from 1406 to 1420 along with the Forbidden City, the Temple of Heaven played an important religious role during the Ming and Qing Dynasties — visited by Emperors during prayer ceremonies to Heaven for good harvest.³ Depicted below is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests; the currently standing structure having been built after the original burned down in a fire caused by lightning in 1889.³

The five photos below were taken inside the massive Summer Palace complex. Most recently in its history, the palatial park and grounds served as the summer resort of Empress Dowager Cixi, who famously (or infamously) spent 3 million taels of silver originally designated for the Chinese navy on the enlargement of the palace, purportedly causing China to lose the First Sino-Japanese War six years after the renovations. You can read more about the Summer Palace’s history, and see pictures of its countless sights (my photos do not do it justice) here.

The Jingshan Park lies directly north of the Forbidden City complex depicted in the final tile. Hoary trees and their shadowy crone counterparts abound in the park, as do large groups of senescent women dancing in choreograph and equally gray-haired men practicing tai chi.

You’ve Never Seen a Buddhist Temple like This


A Heart Sutra in the heart of Shanghai.

Shanghai can be a bit rough around the edges sometimes. I fully acknowledge this. Most locals would say the same when asked about the traffic, crowds, air quality, and surprisingly cold winter. The Shanghainese themselves can sometimes also be a bit rough around the edges (in a lovable sort of way) to faint-hearted Westerners. Get between a Shangher and their food and they will assuredly cut you in line, order, and pay before you even notice.

But really, the city and its people have a soft side. Which happens to be the same side that loves glittering gilded gold pagodas, towering ornate statues of Buddha, high-vaulted worship halls, impressive and expensive art exhibits, intricately carved wooden screen doors, and, of course, an ever-present assortment of merchandise.

Continue reading “You’ve Never Seen a Buddhist Temple like This”