Monday, June 5, 2017

China, March 2016

You just want to see the purty pitchers because all the big words hurt your widdle head? Well then go here. It's right above this post anyway you nitwit.

It recently came to my attention that somehow, I never did a blog post for a really enjoyable trip to China and Hong Kong with my (new) wife - which would make it a honeymoon. That she's from there and speaks Cantonese and Mandarin helped, I think.

High level summary: I was never one to distinguish food quality in Asian cuisine before, but the food was outstanding. Hong Kong was great, with a surprising amount of preserved space, largely owing to its mountainous terrain. As much as I loved the food in Hong Kong, I really loved eating Sichuan in Sichuan. At every level it was fantastic. Chinese countryside was pretty great too; Sichuan was my favorite part of the trip. Guangzhou was fun in the sense that a foreigner visiting Houston would enjoy the uniqueness of it, but the wife has been dragged to Pennsylvania enough that this was only fair. 10/10 would do again. Also we had better reasons to go than the one Jeff Daniels gave. Next time, Yunnan and Shanghai.

Having left China two decades ago, my wife has a dim view of the land of her birth. "Don't trust anybody," she offered, "they'll kill you for a dollar," and other helpful nuggets. So you may imagine my wariness on arrival. What did I actually witness? Occasionally I saw some rude pushing and shoving on the subway. From my wife. Never from other passengers.


In Hong Kong I often felt like I was in a video game - places dominated by the financial sector tend to have a status monoculture, one in which you literally can measure how many points you have. I felt this to be more the case in Hong Kong than in New York or London. The extreme verticality of the place and the moving sidewalks certainly didn't make it seem less like Mario brothers, and the fact that subway credits can be used at most convenience stores. I know I'm not supposed to say this, but Hong Kong reminded me of Japan. That said if I had to pick between living in Hong Kong and Singapore I'd choose Singapore, for many reasons, one of which is it felt a bit more open, despite its obvious social engineering. It's also always interesting going to a charter city, although I find myself asking the question to what degree Hong Kong (and Singapore's) success comes from being charter cities per se, versus being specifically, products of two successful cultures (Chinese and English.)

Pics begin with the obligatory shots from Mt. Victoria, looking north to Kowloon.

Main Island

(Image from The wife said that she thought the funicular railway on Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh was steeper than the Peak Tram (see end of this post), and after comparing pictures I think I agree.

HK City Planner #1: Should we have double-decker buses or streetcars? HK City Planner #2: Why not both?

Oddly, we ran across a mosque.
(This happened to me in Kobe as well.)

Below is the footpath up Mt. Victoria (if you don't want to take the funicular or drive.) In one of many instances that made me question if she'd actually been to these places before, my wife said "I don't remember there being hills in Hong Kong." The trail network throughout Hong Kong, including just above the city, are excellent, and this was one of my big surprises of the trip.

The trail that circles the main island is about 50km and is nicely wooded, although from time to time the trees clear and you remember you're still in a video game. Fortunately there were no hammer-throwing turtles at any point. I hate those guys.

After weeks of heavy naval bombardment, the British surrendered HK to the Japanese a few weeks after Pearl Harbor. This is an old British gun emplacement.

My philosophy is simple: some you win, and dim sum you also win. If I went to HK and didn't get dim sum, well, let's not think about that. Also I had cobra soup, which was kind of like egg drop soup with a slightly mediciney taste. It turns out that cobra is dark meat.

Lantau Island

Somewhat like New York, Hong Kong is made up of a series of islands, as well as some area attached to the mainland (Kowloon instead of the Bronx) and some relatively undeveloped mountainous terrain inland of that (New Territories), before you hit the border with PRC.

View from the cable car. It's pretty interesting that you take a train out to a smallish mall, then there's a cable car across the (by HK standards) wilderness, to see a giant Buddha. You can see the trails under the cable car in some shots and if I had my druthers I would've run the whole thing. I even wanted to try to make it to the Buddha from the airport at night the last night we were there but cooler heads (ie my wife) prevailed. There is a pretty fun race there though I don't know if they had it again this year.

Trails up and over the first rise. If I lived in HK I would probably spend every day off over here, and back in CA I talked to an American who had done exactly that.

First view of the Buddha.

They're building a bridge across the bay to Macau, which will be the longest sea bridge in the world when completed.

Here's old Gautama again, seen from inside the village, which was (jarringly in retrospect, but perfectly fitting HK) deliberately built European-style. I'm a little annoyed that no one is building replica American villages.

Cattle wandering around. If Buddhists are nice to cattle, why aren't cattle roaming unmolested everywhere that Buddhists are in the majority? I mean you don't have to create a whole caste of dalit or Shabbat goy to handle beef like they did in Japan, but still, address this please.


Blazing giant incense sticks. It's always 4:20 on Lantau Island brah

The temple was very pretty and had a vegetarian snack shop that, dammit, was actually pretty tasty.

What is this bronze object? (I'm asking, I genuinely don't know.)

The statue above (actually much more colorful than my phone made it look) can be found at a trailhead next to the temple complex. Let me just say that this gaudy bird statue is curiously similar to Berks County's own Distelfink by the Tulpehocken (below), as I have noted before. You think you're safe from Dutchmen in this part of the world? Think again!

This the view down the other side of the main island. On the spur of the moment we decided to hike down. We found that side of the island to have the highest percentage of South Asian folks, and in general it seemed like this was not the best side of HK. (Not dangerous or dirty, but not as gleaming and Neuromancer-looking as the other side. Which actually is kind of Neuomancerish.) Again, the trail through the forest makes you forget you're in HK.


We went to a temple in Kowloon that was surrounded (of course) by high rises. Later on we did get to the hash (only for the circle) and got a free beer out of them (suckers!) Just kidding, any of you, please come to the San Francisco Hash and if I'm not there, for a warm reception, just tell them Oral Roberts guaranteed free beer.

Then night fell in Kowloon. Sunday night. I had to keep reminding myself there and on the underground that it was Sunday, and not Friday night. This is the place that essentially rioted when authorities tried to close down food stalls on New Years. I believe it.

Below: tiger prawns. They're amazing creatures. All the more amazing when you cook em in a pot and eatem!

The photo of the bus terminal above was actually taken on the way back from Guangzhou. You can't fully appreciate it here but it's another example of mega-scale architecture. This is also the only time I've switched driving sides over a land border (China on the right, Hong Kong on the left). It switched with a flyway crossing over to the left as soon as we entered HK.

At the airport on the way home. Assorted meats and organs congee is now my favorite porridge, no joke.



We entered China proper when we flew from Hong Kong to Chengdu, capital of Sichuan. I really, really liked Chengdu. It's a big city (fifth biggest in China at 14 million) with a unique flair coming from its being in the west and the south, and of course there's the food. The walls of the old city are preserved (as you can see below) and there's a large historical quarter with preserved houses, restaurants and shops. I would compare it to the French Quarter except much cooler, and with civilized people instead of idiots hooting and vomiting.

An ancient coffeehouse, full of mystery and wisdom.

Many private houses were either restored, or were built with/against fragments of old walls and buildings.
Above: the enntrance to my favorite thing in Chengdu, a preserved Qing dynasty official's house, late eighteenth century. Sorry Frank, but this place is cooler than Fallingwater.

Above, the official's office. Below, the place was partly open air, and there were small stone channels and ponds connecting both the internal courtyards and rooms.

Ah, we're just about to have tea. We would be honored if you would join us.

Rabbit skull, a delicacy and Chengdu. Tried it; not blown away. I'm fine with eating bunnies but their skulls are sharper than you think and there's just really not that much meat on a rabbit head. Indeed, regarding this snack, "what's up doc" is a totally legitimate question.

The old city's east gate; this metro stop is called Dongmen ("east gate".) I've noticed that throughout the Old World, when you translate the names, many of them sound positively English (first struck me at a subway stop in Tokyo, Ochanomizu, "tea water.") Of course, to my third-grade-level mind a name like "Dong men" led to no end of amusement, especially combined with the nearby "Wang gang", much to my wife's exasperation.

I'd long wanted to see a dawn redwood, the only species of the Sequoioideae family found outside North America. I see why they don't make as big a deal about them though.

Above and below: for about twenty years they've been excavating this site in Chengdu, thought the be the capital of the old kingdom of Shu, a separate state which predates the Qin conquest of southern China. The fertile plains of eastern Asia was once the site of many kingdoms, which were first absorbed into one state in the third century B.C. The art of Shu looks very un-Chinese. It's interesting to to think of an alternate China that, like Europe, remains as many separate states (their minority cultures, even in relatively eastern areas, are only now being assimilated - think of the Miao) - or to think of Europe as having merged into a superstate two thousand years ago that has survived except for brief intervals of civil war. Imagine if the Persians had taken the whole continent and held it, and/or Alexander had turned west, and/or the Roman Empire never fell, and/or Charlemagne had controlled the whole continent and the Franks held onto it. (You can read an alternate history thought experiment about exactly this.)

Shu masks from nearby Sanxingdui. (Wikipedia)

Anyang Bridge (rebuilt after a flood in the 1980s.) Marco Polo was here and wrote about this bridge. I did my best Marco Polo impression. Three old men were watching us as this picture was taken, clearly trying to understand what I was up to.

Above: along the river; below, a typically enormous bus and train station in Chengdu, with guards and metal detectors, as most such facilities (including subway stops) have in China.

This mall purports to be the world's biggest building. I don't think this is true, but nonetheless it's an enormous building, and the only time in my life I've felt justified in making a mall a tourist destination. Around it, the skyline seems to be doing its best Blade Runner imitation.

There is a beach inside, with sand and waves. You see that miniature high-rise hotel off to the size? It was actually a full-sized, fully functioning hotel. Later on we ate at one of the mall restaurants, a bit disappointed to be eating "inauthentic" food while in Sichuan - but wait, aren't we in Sichuan? It's ALL authentic! And damn if it wasn't the best Sichuan we'd ever had (until the very next meal we had there of course.)

The identity of the victim is being withheld until next of kin has been notified.

Almost forgot, there's a full-sized Mediterranean village at the other end of the beach. It took a good 10-15 minutes to walk there. Above, that's the plaza mayor.

Sichuan is famous for having forests with actual wild pandas. Of course there aren't many left (although they've recently been taken off the endangered list; true improvement, or Chinese administrative legerdemain?) There's a panda breeding facility in Chengdu where you can pet the pandas - or at least, until 8 months before we got there, you could. We ended up not going. (I mean I've seen pandas before, if you can't pet them what's the point?) So this was the closest we got to one on the trip.

A temple in Chengdu. Not featured: the famous park and tea restaurant (recommended), the ear-cleaning guys (not recommended.)

I still get hungry when I look at these pictures. It was even better than it looks. Even bread from the food carts was great. At one point we bought sesame bread from a young Uighur guy (he looked basically white; would not have been out of place in Tijuana) and he was speaking what I assumed was Mandarin, but my wife said she had a very hard time understanding him.


We made a point of getting out of the city, in this case to the holy mountain Ermei-shan. It's long been a pilgrimage site and now is developed for tourists. I only saw one other group of Westerners (but amazingly, in these cities of 14,000,000, I only saw 50-75 whites the whole time in each, most of those in one place.) Cities in the modern world have a way of all looking the same - the modern parts of China just didn't seem that alien to me - so getting out in the country is usually a way to see a place more as it is. I would've loved to get all the way to the top of Ermei-shan but it's 12,000' and I wasn't about to try it in a single day. You're at the eastern edge of the Hindu Kush here, and those mountains get over 20,000' within a hundred miles or so. AND, they have monkeys living in them, which becomes important.

Above: I consider this to be the Leesport of Sichuan. Below: immediately after reading this I turned to my wife and called her a bitch. She then gave me the finger. There is video evidence of this.

Initially I was annoyed that it was raining. But if it hadn't, I wouldn't have realized how much the Sung landscape painters captured the mountains.

And here was the first troop of monkeys I encountered; Tibetan macaques. These guys were used to seeing tourists and getting treats from them so they were pretty mellow; for them, life is good. Of course you're not supposed to feed them or especially not touch them (other primates herpes viruses can kill you dead in a matter of days) but of course I saw people with monkeys sitting on their heads for selfies, etc. One of my favorite stories of the trip: there was a monkey sitting on some steps, blocking my wife's forward progress and looking her in the eye, clearly not interested in moving. When he got up to approach her she shouted "No! Stay back!" as if from an assertiveness/rape prevention class. (And let's think about that. First, the monkeys don't understand you. Second, if they did, they would be speaking Mandarin, so yelling in English would be useless. And third, she speaks Mandarin.) She insists that the monkey waggled his eyebrows at her in a display of dominance. My wife sees things sometimes.

I left my wife behind with the dominating monkeys and proceeded up into the clouds.

I don't have pictures or video of the second monkey troop, because I was afraid. At one point I heard what I thought were people murmuring on the hillside above the trail, until I realized it was more macaques (they sound really uncannily like people, of course. They even cough the same.) As I approached, I noticed food wrappers littering the trail - and this bothered me, because they're known to deliberately part people from their belongings, and even work in teams. I picked up a stick and cautiously continued along the trail. One side of the trail was a steep wooded hillside against my shoulder, a steep drop-off into the mist with a railing on the other. At my footsteps the macaques suddenly fell silent. Then I heard small rocks starting to roll down the hill just a few feet deep in the woods above me. I turned to one side of the trail to look up into the foliage, expecting a macaque to come leaping out at any moment. When none did, I turned back to continue - and there, sitting on the railing, right next to me, was a big adult male showing his teeth, one foot from my face. It's very hard to believe this distraction technique wasn't coordinated. Fortunately I wasn't carrying anything that looked like food, but I can honestly say the macaques scared me more than any other wildlife encounter has, including many bear encounters, precisely because of their intelligence and coordination. I turned around at that point.

Throughout, people became excited when they saw me and sometimes wanted to take pictures with me. At one point people asked me very kindly (in English even) if I was cold, to which I responded in Mandarin, "Thank you. No. I am not cold. I am a bear."

Although not wilderness, having a trail up a mountain with frequent possible resting places (actual indoor temple rooms used by pilgrims) is kind of nice. A few too many soda stands for my liking though, but such is hiking in the developing world, and they decrease once you really get up the mountain.

Read carefully. "#3. If you come across some terrible monkeys in the way for food..." Karma I guess, as in college, people often described me in very similar terms.

Even in Tang China, they knew the Nittany lions were coming. Bottom photo from

From a little hole in the wall across from the train station. Again, excellent of course.


Guangzhou is not your usual tourist destination. Of the Pearl River Delta cities (Guangzhou, Macau, and Hong Kong/Shenzhen), it's really the big bad older brother. But, it's where my wife grew up, and along with Hong Kong it's the epicenter of the diaspora of Cantonese people and culture that make up much of what the rest of the world knows about China.

From my wife's initial descriptions, I expected that the plane would break through the clouds and we would see a fiery pit with screaming tortured souls desperately and futilely trying to escape. How bad it actually was: kind of rainy.

These are typical alleys and apartment blocks, and this is the list of representatives for the Chinese Communist Party. Everything is organized down to the block. My wife lived within a couple blocks from here, and the development is so extreme that she can barely find her way around after 20 years away.

There are many windows so you can look under the street, which seemed kind of odd at first. Also, my wife's childhood playground was gone, but had a similar window built into the grass near where the swings used to be. These facts are related - because running underneath all of it is the palace of the Q'in general who first captured Guangdong for the Emperor, unifying China for the first time in 221 B.C., now being excavated, with windows so people above ground can appreciate it. (Note: under my playground there were no two thousand year old imperial palaces.) I feel this takes something away from kids who want to play make believe. You can go in and look at the public part of the excavation as well.

Old communists singing loyalty songs in a park. We also once saw young people doing this, in Long-March costume, but it didn't seem spontaneous or habitual as it did here.

The Pearl River.

Six Banyan Temple. The tower has been destroyed before (really destroyed; a tower that's just leaning is perfectly usable) so the plaques next to it show the plans and instructions for rebuilding it the next time it happens.

Above: I became oddly fixated on Buicks in China, so common were they - in fact China makes up about 80% of Buick's sales now, with the U.S. as a peripheral market.

While we were away we missed, in no particular order: freedom of speech, freedom of the press (including Google), Mexican food, blue California skies, and our stupid cats. We were glad to return to all of these.

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