First Impressions can be Rough

NOTE: This post never got published – WordPress accidentally sent it to drafts. This post is from the beginning of September, and I only just realized it now. This means that references to this post in those earlier posts would not have made any sense. I’m not sure I’m making sense now….Anyway, on to my small initial breakdown!

To be fair, I really did hit all the buttons on the remote.

I tried every one, both with the cable plugged into the television, and with it removed. I moved the tv to a different outlet, just in case. And I fiddled with the back, checking the input options. I know televisions, and this one wasn’t turning on. I don’t mean I was getting static, or a black menu screen. I mean that the power light didn’t even turn on.

So I called the main office. I assured them I checked the circuit breakers. Within twenty minutes my…landlord (perhaps) showed up. I showed him the errant television, now unplugged in the corner. He plugged in the very same cables I did. He hit the same buttons I did on the remote. And the television turned on.

I stood dumbfounded, staring at the screen. He stared at me with what might have been pity. I apologized in English, which I’m not sure he understood. Then I escorted him out, and had a little cry. Nothing major, just a small, “Oh, I’ve been in this country two days on my own and I’ve already made a total ass of myself. I’ve brought shame to the whole of the United States. Stupid television. Stupid buttons. Stupid American.” Three minutes later, sniffling, I cleaned off my face and stood in my room. It didn’t do me much good.

This is my room (the jinxed television is offscreen to my left):

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It’s just as cozy and unfurnished as can be. I did get a futon and duvet, which I moved to the “loft” space on day 2. Admittedly I love the loft space, even if the air conditioner doesn’t quite reach it. My pillow might be filled with corn kernels, or dried beans; I haven’t investigated, but it doesn’t cradle my head so much as rebel against it. Right now I’m trying to figure out where I’m supposed to store anything. I have two small closets for clothes, as well as two small closets that I can’t really access without the aid of a provided hook/pole (you can see it by the mirror). I have two small cubby-holes above my microwave/fridge, and one small cabinet above my sink. I have space under my sink, but I won’t be storing food there. I have a good sized shelf in the bathroom, and a large cubby in the loft space (where I put my books and crafty things).

I think that’s what fueled my little crying fit. This is such a stark space. It really makes an impression. I have one table that is to serve as my desk, dining room table, and kitchen prep area. My walls are white and bare. I have no bookcase, no dresser, no oven. I can sit on my floor, or on one of the two hard chairs provided.

I wonder if that’s why they recommended bringing money with us as a cushion before we get paid – so we could buy furnishings. I won’t, as I don’t have the money to do so. But a couch would make this place infinitely better. Hell, a beanbag would at least give it the semblance of a residence.  It’s not the size that bugs me. I’ve lived in small spaces and made them cozy and my own. And I know that Japanese spaces are small in general. If I had to define it, I think it’s just the blankness, and the unfamiliarity. I realize this as I lay on my back on the floor, staring at nothing.

But it’s only been two days, I remind myself. It’s been two days. I’m being unduly hard on both myself and the residence. At least I know that it’s my pattern to do so. I break hard with first impressions, usually skewing towards negative. And then I take a deep breath and make it my own space, my own environment.

One of the rules here is that I’m not to affix anything to the walls via pushpins, tape, nails, etc. So lawyer-trained as I am, I’m putting things up with sticky-tac because it doesn’t stain or leave a mark. I refuse to spend the next five months living in a bare white room.

One step at a time, I shall give my tiny rebel yell. I will make this place my home. I will master the television.

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Beijing Day 4: Understanding Stone

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We leave Beijing early, as it’s a two hour drive to Mutianyu, our site of choice to climb the Great Wall.

The Great Wall of China. I’ve heard a lot of the hype – visible from space, etc. It is, in essence, a big ole wall, and perhaps it’s because I’m on a tour that I feel my mental edges starting to crackle like burning film. How impressive can a wall be? How big does big mean? I’m worried about the climb and Dad’s knee. I don’t want to be accosted by merchants all selling the same things. My mood is still apparently sour, but I’m determined to be happy.

 It is, I should have known, not a straight shot to the Wall. First, we must stop at a jade market. Jade is perhaps one of the most recognizable Chinese goods, followed by silk and tea. And while I did not want to stop at a bunch of stores to be gouged repeatedly by simpering store clerks, I also could not afford the “no shopping” tour. Yes, some places charge you more to not be hassled. The Jade store is not so bad. The woman walks us past the requisite man working at a specialty saw. He’s making something for the store, apparently. The massive store with rows upon rows of statues of varying shades of Jade, cases and cases stuffed with jewelry. I just wish they could see the flaws in their own presentations. If everything is made in this tiny little workshop with six tables, why is only one man working? And why is each table making the same thing? She takes us around the corner to the store, and teaches us how to tell good jade from bad, real jade from fake.

Hold jade up to the light – it should have a grainy, fibrous quality to it. Fake jade (usually made from glass or plastic, though other stones will also be used) will have symmetrical lines in it. Real jade is also cooler to the touch than you would think, and maintains its coolness for longer. This is why you’re supposed to wear Jade over the heart. Jade is heavier than it looks because it is so dense.

I shop the discount racks – any government-approved store in China is going to hike the price at least fifty percent if not more, and they do not negotiate. You are in essence paying for the undisputed authenticity of a product. Dad, having expressed an interest in a cartouche, is whisked away to the “special” back showroom. I do surveillance, amused. I watch as they show him the jade which costs more than a car, as much as a house in Chengdu.

 The Turks did it better – they gave us pizza and alcohol, and they might have drugged my Mother a little before bringing out the “sapphires.” The Chinese have a harder time, hitting us up when we’re stone cold sober. No, we don’t need that $10,000 keychain thank you. Dad buys a dragon pendant, and I get my pig necklace. The woman shows me fancier and fancier pigs, and while the most expensive has the fewest flaws, I take a mid-range pendant.  Our sales girl, Miao Miao, chastises me for wanting brown string instead of red. “You wear things…much plainer. I like to wear beautiful things,” she says, pursing her lips slightly as she ties my necklace. Whatever, Miao Miao, I think – you have to tell all the English speaking tourists your name sounds like a cat’s meow.

 The second stop before the wall is lunch – another bland affair. I’ve been tempered in hot pot, and now I eat this fake sweet and sour with a bit of a grudge. How many people have complained about the food to get it to this point? Why are they treating us like we’re so fragile.

 Because we are. I was tempered in hot pot, but I also got really sick once. Bland is safe, and probably leads to fewer toilet trips. I grimace at the idea of throwing up in a squat toilet…

 

And then, we arrive. Mutianyu just completed a brand new tourist information center. It is, in fact, a village – a whole commercial village, empty and awaiting vendors. It’s beautiful stone work and dark wood railings. If and when it is completed it will be a great spot for the bustling crowds of tourists. You can’t see the wall from here. We take a bus up towards the peaks of the mountain range.

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It’s old school vendors up near the top – a street packed with tents and shelves of t-shirts, magnets, terra cotta warriors, plastic models – a treasure trove of dollar-store goods. The climb is steep, Dad and I window-shopping all the way up to the cable car. You can sort of see the Wall up above. The stone ramparts stick up from the trees all along the spine of the ridge.

 

Vendors

Dad doesn’t know why I’m antsy on the cable car. I explain that there is no secondary emergency cable. There is actually nothing to stop us from falling – we ride up one cable, and one cable only. And it’s a steep climb to the top. All the cable cars are like this – just one cable and a shudder at every junction as the little glass box pauses its ascent for a second.

 

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And then there is the Wall.

 

Let me tell you about the Great Wall of China. Taken piece by piece it is not much of a sight. It’s old – dark grey stone blocks. It’s nice masonry, and wide. It’s a wide, tall wall with guard towers at regular intervals. Like a medieval castle. You cannot look at one section of the Wall and understand.

 

You must look at the Wall in your periphery to get it. It’s not that one section is amazing. But imagine a thousand sections, all along the ridge of the mountain, beyond your eye’s ability to penetrate the haze. Up the tops of the mountains and as far as you can see, there is the Wall. In both directions is the Wall. It keeps going, strong and wide and high enough that even if you climbed the mountain you’d still have to climb the Wall.

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Those hoards must have been truly ferocious to inspire such total ramparts.

 

We stay and reflect. I watch dragonflies dance along the treetops. I photograph my panda bracelet, as my Chinese teacher friends told me that it is a custom to photograph pandas on the Great Wall. I eavesdrop on a French tour guide explaining the history of the wall to her one-man audience.

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It’s an amazing piece of engineering. It took tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of workers to build (many of whom lost their lives). And apart from climbing from tower to tower, that is really all you can do at the Wall – walk and reflect. I bet that’s what the guards did – walk the ramparts and stare out at the forests, reflecting on life. I wonder if Wall duty was sought after, or if it was a punishment. Maybe it was required for every soldier to guard the wall at some point.

 

The climb back down is hard – my legs have decided to hate descending. I stop and haggle for a wood-carving, Dad wants a “bronze” doorknocker. Ted meets us near the busses and buys us both diet cokes, and we sit for a few minutes to catch our breath before continuing down the mountain to our car.

 

If you get a chance to visit the Great Wall, spend a little more and go to Mutianyu. It is farther away than the Badaling climb site, but the crowds are smaller and the views are spectacular (if the weather is good).

 

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A Plum Bum

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“Oh…the way you eat!” Kate says to me. With her accent it’s difficult to tell what she means. We haven’t been walking through Jiezi Ancient town that long, and my hosts keep stopping at every food stall asking if I’m hungry. I’ve said yes once or twice, and now I’m holding two glutinous dumplings and a brown sugar cake thing. Kate’s exclamation came after I took a healthy bite out of the dumpling.

“Should I take smaller bites?” I pick my words carefully. I mean, what could that mean? Do I look gluttonous, or perhaps I missed a social clue somewhere? Me, the meaty-pawed American, devouring gentle Chinese food?

“No, no – you eat so easy, with much passion! I like it!” She says brokenly. I look at the glutinous dumpling in my hand, filling starting to ooze out of the middle. I can’t begrudge her that. I do eat with passion. I reserve dainty eating for high teas and formal wear outings. I know all my forks and spoons – none of which are required for street vendor dumplings.

We walked on, and I eat bean curds and more bean curds. The first set is fried on a skewer, the second is served like hot jell-o in a bowl with scallions and peppers. I was going on a cup of coffee and a cup of black sesame insta-porridge, but I tell myself that this is a great chance to live like the locals. If savory and spicy is what’s for breakfast, then bon appetit! People stare. Lily says that some in the crowd have me pegged as a Russian beauty. I love the quaint idea of me being a Russian beauty – it is so far from reality.

Jiezi Ancient town is meant to emulate old Chinese villages. Some genuinely old structures exist, like the paper burning tower and the Lucky bridge, but around it spring “traditional” tourist shops, statues, and carnival games. The sight of tourist shops makes me very happy. Souvenirs! I can get all my trinket shopping done now! Lily and Kate agree that it is better to wait until the walk back to buy things, so my arms don’t get tired. This doesn’t stop over-eager Lily from assuming I must want to purchase everything I stop to inspect. I stopped to examine a key chain, and suddenly she’s rifling through the basket, asking me if I want to buy every sample she holds up. She wants to be helpful. I go back to being more discreet in my interest.

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We walk and make small talk. Lily and Kate are eager to practice their English with me, and I need to remember how to make small talk.
“Jean, do you like mountains?” Kate asks at one point.
“Uh, sure.” I reply. Truthfully, as soon as that baited hook hit the water, my brain was yelling for me to abort, to lie. Claim an injury. You want to shop! This is going to be an easy day! Souvenirs and dumplings, damn it!
“There is a small mountain here. Would you like to climb it?” Lily asks.
“…Ok, if it’s a small mountain.” My brain throws its hands up in exasperation.
“Oh, yes. Not very tall. I’ve never climbed it – only been up in a car,” Kate says. Off we go. About two hours into the ascent, it occurs to me that there were any number of follow up questions I could have asked. Like how small is the mountain? How high does it go? Are you sure you want to climb in plastic shoes? But I like nature, and goodness knows I’ve climbed some small peaks here.

It’s pretty – there are bronze colored lizards and more of those red and black millipedes. Bamboo arches over us in a thin canopy, and black and yellow butterflies flit through the sunlight.

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All of these things I saw and appreciated during the first half of the climb. But after two hours of unexpected mountain climbing, my shirt is soaked through in sweat. It’s not very hot, but it is humid. My non-climbing appropriate bra is doing the best it can. I didn’t bring a hat, or sunglasses, or my walking stick. I haven’t stretched. I am not in a mental state for any sort of strenuous activity, but at least I’m wearing what I think are good shoes for climbing. They have to better than Kate’s jelly sandals, or Stone’s canvas boat shoes.

Then I slipped and fell on my ass. Hard. The steps were slick with moss, and I got preoccupied thinking about everyone else’s feet while going down one such flight. My first thought, strangely enough, when I hit the ground was Fuck. Now Lily is going to have a heart attack. Lily, the maternal teacher, does indeed grip my upper arm as though she thinks I’ve killed myself on her watch. Later, she would explain that she feels responsible for me, since she took me from the school on this trip. As though she could have stopped my foot from losing traction through sheer force of “not on my watch.”

At that particular moment, however, I wasted precious energy on making sure I didn’t yell at her as she tugged at me. In the few times in my life where I’ve been in sudden and great pain my response is to withdraw to do inventory, and to snap at people. It takes so much more effort to reassure everyone else that you’re ok! But I do, I reassure everyone, repeatedly. I tell them to let me sit for a moment, and then I ignore them. They chatter because they don’t know how else to express their worry, I tell myself. The same as most people.

I have this theory on pain. You have to face it straight on – nitpick it immediately. It will either stay strong or get worse, which suggests that you’ve really hurt yourself. Or it will hurt, but you’ll be able to see through it a little, which suggests that you might actually be as ok as you keep not-screaming at the clucking hens around you. I go through each joint, and each is undamaged. But my butt – Jesus Christ what have I done?! It’s not my tailbone, or my hip. But I have decidedly damaged a part of my backside. It’s a deep, stinging pain. I can almost feel the bruise forming already. But I can feel it dilute ever so slightly as the seconds tick by. Lily and Kate are debating whether to hold me the rest of the climb – no way. I put on my cheeriest “What me, worry?” face and push on. I will not be coddled.

As we reach the 902m marker – the summit? – I look at my watch and realize it’s been over three hours of hiking. Worse, they let the saplings grow all over the “scenic” area, so that you can’t see anything at all. We press on, and eventually reach the temple at the end of the way. It’s pretty and peaceful, removed from the town. We sit for a break in the shelter of tall, leafy trees and drink tea. Lily tells me she really does love me, and Kate wants to know if Tommy Hilfiger costs as much in the US as it does in China. Stone is happy to pour the hot water and shrug whenever I look at him.

 

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We took a bus down the mountain. Lily tells everyone on the bus that I am the greatest English teacher from America, that I could teach them all English. I’m just trying to sit correctly so that searing pain doesn’t make me wince and reveal I’m still in pain. A little girl sings a counting song for me – it’s cute, but also I feel like I’m on show again. Everyone watching me, watching this little girl who looks exactly how I feel. We both wish for a moment of peace.

Upon arrival we search for a clean toilet. Once we find one, I check my back in the mirror – a red and purple patch the size of my hand blossoms like a ripe plum. A plum bum.

By this time, most of the shops have closed – primarily all the souvenir shops. I don’t try to hide my disappointment. Four frickin’ mountains I have now climbed, but I still don’t have the tiny glaives for my friends back home. Resigned, I walk back to the parking lot.

Having said earlier that I like hot pot, Lily chooses a “chicken hot pot” restaurant. My excitement returns. I haven’t actually gotten to eat proper community style hot pot since my arrival because I usually dine alone. I give Kate and Lily free rein to order what they want.

The waitress brings our pot, filled with chili oil, broth, and chicken bits (including the feet). Accompanying this is a tray with our dishes. Here are some of the dishes added to the pot: lotus root, potatoes, rice noodles, duck intestine, baby octopus, cow’s stomach, chicken blood, chicken liver, mushrooms, another type of noodle, and what appeared to be bacon. Everything starts raw. I think of witch’s cauldrons.

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Here’s how it works: First, you build your own small bowl of “soup” using the contents of the hot pot, mixed with scallions, parsley, garlic, oyster sauce, vinegar – however spicy or bland you want it. Then, you either dunk a raw something into the big boiling pot individually, or pour the whole plate in (we did this with the lotus). Once cooked, you put it in your own concoction for added flavor, then eat it.

Before I do this, I have another accident – apparently I was in fine form. The manager comes by to talk to me. He’s saying something about Nixon, but it’s really noisy and I lean closer to hear him. Then my eye is on fire. Somehow, I got the chili broth in my eye – probably because I was leaning closer to the boiling pot. I practically jump out of my chair with a hasty “excuse me” and then I’m in the bathroom frantically trying to rinse burn out of my eyeball. Fan-tas-tic, let me tell ya. I return, and try not to feel like the klutz I have suddenly become.

We eat. I was exhausted by this point, and gleefully tried everything. I don’t get the inherent contradiction that is chicken’s blood. Lily said they serve the blood so you know the chicken is fresh, but when I asked how they get it to cook solid, she said they add salt and let it sit. So technically that means the chicken is only as fresh as the blood takes to congeal? Anyway it tasted fine. The digestive tracks of the cow and duck were also tasty.

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They bring out porridge, a welcome blandness to the spice of the meal. I am sated and full and praying that I don’t get sick. Or, if I must get sick, that I don’t throw up. That would be awful.

“Oh, Jean, you are a very good eater!” Says Lily. I look at my bowl. Again, I really have no idea how to interpret this. I get the sense that it is a complement, and thank her.

“Yes – it’s good you try all the foods,” Kate agrees. “Shows you are open-minded person!”

I send a silent thank you to my grandparents. All those lamb roasts at the Croatian center, sucking marrow from bones, and those livers and gizzards my other grandma cooked have made me hearty. There’s something to be said for having Depression era style food as part of your ancestral heritage. Makes eating pasta-like intestine not seem so other worldly.

On the trip back, Kate wants to know about movies. Lily drives slowly in the fog, asking me multiple times if I had a good day.

I broke my posterior. I got chili oil in my eyeball. The shops were closed and I somehow climbed yet another mountain. I discussed oolong tea and Sichuan opera. Some guy gave me a free piece of metal frame which I am going to try and use to keep my shower from flooding my bathroom.

It was a wonderful day.

 

PS: It is really hard to take a clinical picture of your own backside.

 

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Marco!…Hangzhou!…

Perhaps I was born in the wrong time and as the wrong gender. Not to be an apologist, but if I wanted to be one the great explorers back in the day I don’t think I could have done so as a woman. That is part of the reason why, when anyone asks me if I could go back in time, I really have to think about my answer. To go back in time is to strip away my freedom of movement, to say the least. There are places in the world I still cannot go without feeling heavy judgment.

But I will digress further if I don’t stop now. One of my favorite old adventurers is Marco Polo. He might have been in it for the money, but he left a legacy of actually going places and telling people about what he saw. I love that, and I romanticize what it must have been like to cross Asia by land. It was probably slow, and very dangerous, but what an adventure! It’s Marco Polo who deserves credit for my wanting to visit Hangzhou. My guidebook says when he saw Hangzhou, Marco Polo thought it the most beautiful city in the entire world, and quoted as much to the man taking dictation (Polo was in prison in Italy when he dictated much of his travelogue).

Well, Hangzhou was/is number 1 on my Chinese bucket list. I’m following Marco Polo. The photos of West Lake make it look really relaxing, and in any other context the names for places would be a hokey stereotype of Eastern nomenclature. Here are some of the names listed on my map:

  • Orioles Singing in the Willows
  • Three Pools Mirroring the Moon
  • The Temple of the Soul’s Retreat
  • The Peak that Flew from Afar
  • Dreaming of the Tiger Spring
  • Autumn Moon over a Calm Lake
  • Lotus in the Breeze

I like orioles. I like willows. I am ambivalent about peaks, but I like things that are afar! So off I go to Hangzhou, via Shanghai’s bullet train.

Alright, a second digression (there might be three): I don’t understand American reluctance to build up our rail system. For twenty bucks I got a first class seat on a train going somewhere around 200km/hour. I made it from Shanghai to Hangzhou in an hour! It was fast, efficient, quiet and comfortable. Even the “second class” tickets looked like seats on the South Shore rail in Illinois/Indiana. We need to stop dragging our heels and get this accomplished. The train sat hundreds and left every hour. I saw it in Europe, and I’m seeing it here – tell all your friends, neighbors, and local politicians that we need more passenger trains and high speed rail!
Thus ends second digression.

It was cloudy when I got to the Hangzhou South train station. And it was dirty – the train station and the immediate area was crawling with beggars and indifferent taxis. Just off the plaza where I emerged, confused from the tunnels below, a woman was wailing for money next to a man with a thin blanket over his whole body as though he were a corpse. I couldn’t think of a more dismal welcome, an icier bucket of realism. I finally found a taxi to drive me. There was congestion, and cars just started driving on the sidewalks. The buildings were grimy and crowded together. The sky was gray. I was convinced that the guide books had lied, that Marco Polo had seen an oasis, now long covered by concrete and cruel indifference.

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My hotel was in the new commercial district of Hangzhou. It had planned parks and futuristic architecture. I felt only mildly better, as I don’t have a lot of interest in banking centers. Still, everything was clean and too rich for my shopping habits, so at least I was on familiar ground. Then I met Greg (name changed) the concierge, who proved to be an amazing asset. Greg informed me that I took bus 96, which stopped just outside, and rode it to the end I would be at West Lake, the famous tourist attraction. Furthermore, if I switched to the K7 and rode that to the end, I’d be at the Peak that Flew from Afar, which I really wanted to see.

Greg also explained about the public bikes. Like Copenhagen, Hangzhou has a fleet of bicycles for local use, with parking spots all over the city. After explaining how to get a permit to use the bikes (which involved going to the ominous Community Center mentioned in my last post, putting down a 200rmb deposit and providing my passport), Greg excused himself and returned with a plastic card from one the receptionists. “Just one day, so it’s no problem,” he said, saving me at least an hour of bureaucracy.

As though Fate was displeased by my sudden turn in mood, she brought rain in the morning. Lots of steady, cool rain. She was courteous enough to also provide a tour bus which took every last umbrella from the concierge. I saw them all on the bus, each holding an orange Marriott umbrella, some looking at me with an innocent “Oh, where’s yours?” I was just about to hunker down and push out when Greg appeared again, holding several shrink-wrapped umbrellas. I thanked him – he was truly earning his gold keys! He was also correct on every front. The 96 did stop just at West Lake, the K7 did go straight to the Peak and the surrounding temples.

Marco Polo thought Hangzhou was the most beautiful place in the world. I had to use my imagination:

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I know that there is a bank on the other side of that lake, a couple of pagodas. I bet it’s really beautiful.

 

West Lake had all the promise of a lovely spot. Green trees arched gracefully over the roads and water. Flowers bloomed in beds of contrasting colors (The gardener in me wanted a little more cohesion), and boats rocked gently on the choppy waters of the lake. If it was any sort of bonus, the rain kept the crowds down. I took the K7 bus through lush forest, richer in color from the rain, to Lingyin Temple and the Peak the Flew from Afar. The Peak has roughly 300 Buddha’s and icons carved into the caves and face of the small stone face. It was slippery, but beautiful. It was at atmospheric place, more so in the lush foliage.

 

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I paid extra to visit Lingyin Temple, and admired the giant millipedes brought out in the wet weather. I lit some incense for my family, and threw a coin into the giant cauldron at the peak. As I reached the small summit, the sun made a heroic effort and sort of emerged. It was still cloudy, but the rain stopped. I was able to use my new card to get a bike from the electronic locking post, and rode it to the Chinese Tea Museum. The heavy, thankfully cool air was pungent with tea leaves and the smell of wet ground. The museum was interesting, and I learned some facts about tea, but what I remember now is the smell of the place. It was a soft, sweet smell, underlined by that musky smell of earth. I loved it, especially in the attempted efforts of the sun. It created a fragrant mist which filled the air.

 

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In the photo on the right, you can see one of several red bicycles I rented. There’s an additional fee after one hour, so I hopped from bike to bike as needed, since Greg didn’t know how to explain the payment process.

And then I rode back to West Lake, now crowding with people. The clouds returned, and turned everything into muted shades of gray and green. I walked over causeways and small jutting bits of land replete with snack stalls and toy shops. It was lovely, I knew that – it was just a lot of work to see it. By the evening, when I took a boat to see the Three Pools Mirroring the Moon, I was tired. I felt myself trudging – never a good sign.

But there was one more place to go – Orioles singing in the Willows. It was not a short walk from where the boat let out, and I had to push myself. I had been going since breakfast, and apart from a couple of fried crabs on a stick I had not eaten. This is my stubbornness – I should have stopped, but I would not. And when I finally collapsed on a park bench, listening to a silver oriole singing in the long, graceful willow branches I was almost too done to appreciate it. To be clear: I was drinking water, and I did eat some snacks. I simply hadn’t stopped moving for roughly eight hours, when I should have. When I’m by myself, I don’t think about time to rest. There’s so much to see, and I don’t have weeks to explore.

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Still, I sat in the willow area above, contemplating the day.  Then I headed back to my hotel. The next day it rained even harder, and I admitted to myself I had no desire to go outside. Instead I spent the day in the executive lounge (thanks, Dad!) writing my stories and drinking excellent tea.

I took a train back to Shanghai – The Hongqiao Train Station is connected to the Hongqiao Airport, so if you’re planning to travel keep that in mind as it’s wonderfully convenient and saves on Taxi fare. I left from the North Hangzhou train station. I didn’t know that Hongzhou had two train stations – this second one was like landing on Mars. It was massive, white, and gleaming. There were topiaries – topiaries! – outside welcoming me to the city! It was streamlined inside, and full of people. If this had been my introduction to Hangzhou, my first impressions would have been far more flattering.

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And this was not even a holiday weekend – this just a normal Sunday afternoon.
A high speed train trip to the Hongqiao, a walk to the terminal, and I’m on a bumpy flight back to Chengdu.
I have a third digression, but I’m going to save it for my next post, since this one is longer than I anticipated.

 

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Architectural Achievements

I am normally impressed more by nature – with what the world comes by naturally. Urban settings don’t capture my attention as easily. Shanghai and Hangzhou might be the exceptions.

Shanghai did not truly begin its modern expansion until the 1990s, so there was a lot of space available. Pudong, where the now famous financial skyline sits, was originally just a swampy residential area. Now, everywhere I look there are towering structures, but they have an artistry in them. A curve of a wall, a cutout in the middle, spheres and arcs. With the advent of our modern construction techniques, and the lack of previous buildings, this modernization of China is a playground for the architects. And where there is not artistry, there is volume. High rise upon high rise stretch on and on:

On and on

This is the view from my hotel room – an unending vista of tall buildings.

It comes at a cost, though. You don’t hear much about it from the Chinese, and I have enough sense not to ask them, but this doesn’t come without costs. In Chengdu, when they built the new highway system, they simply demolished whatever needed to go. No debate. Sure, people were upset, but the government structure does not have to listen. Three Gorges Dam ousted millions of people from their homes, but that did not stop the Dam from being built. I get the same idea here – as Shanghai rockets upward, and Hangzhou alongside it, I have to wonder about the people who lived in the original buildings, and the farm land which is now under tons of beautifully twisted metal and glass.

I wonder if this is an example of reach exceeding grasp. I don’t know if the system can maintain what is happening here. And I worry if this is like watching a firework explode – it’s bright and beautiful and then it’s gone.  There is worry that Shanghai is sinking under its own weight. I believe I first read about it in Fareed Zakaria’s book “A Post-American World” (excellent read, by the way).  I did some quick internet research, and found this article from Time Magazine which says that geological problems are affecting all parts of China as it grows willy-nilly out and up. It focuses specifically on Shanghai for part of the article, and I can see why.

Still, there are absolutely gorgeous forms here, on a scale and ratio the likes of which I have not seen in the States. The heights, the shapes, the almost whimsical touches in the skyscrapers. It’s impressive.
And so many of these buildings have a futuristic, fantasy vibe to them. Take this building – a “community center” in Hangzhou:

This is so clearly an evil headquarters. I don't know who anyone thinks they are fooling

I mean, does this not scream EVIL HEADQUARTERS? I think it does – It’s all big and dark and round. I walked by it at night, and there was a solitary light on  in one of the office windows. It looked very suspenseful.

Or this one, which looks like a giant, golden Epcot Center / EDI :

Epcot? Or a giant tribute to the Mass Effect AI?

A loving tribute to Orlando or the Mass Effect AI? You decide!

And then there are the shapes of the now famous Shanghai skyline:

Heights Shapes

The building featured on the photo to the right is going to be over 600 meters tall. And next to it is the “Bottle Opener” so named because they couldn’t figure out how to put a circle up that high safely, and had to settle for the rectangle.

 

That must be a debatable benefit of living in a state which does not really have to worry about political consequences via an electorate. You want a new skyline? You can tear down everything and build it up again! Everyone else can just get out of the way! Time will tell if the race to condense and climb will reap benefits or face the consequences.