The title of this post is a line from the Dao De Jing, the foundational text of Daoism (aka “Taoism”) that can be translated as “The way that can be named is not the eternal Way”. This quote, inscrutable as it is, kind of captures Daoism.  To borrow from a post written by a Daoist, here’s a “how to” for learning Daoism.

  1. Don’t concentrate on the definition of the Dao (this will come later naturally)
  2. Understand what Daoism really is. Daoism is more than just a “philosophy” or a “religion”. Daoism should be understood as being: A system of belief, attitudes and practices set towards the service and living to a person’s own nature.
  3. The path of understanding Daoism is simply accepting yourself. Live life and discover who you are. Your nature is ever changing and is always the same. Don’t try to resolve the various contradictions in life, instead learn acceptance of your nature.


Daoism is acceptance of your life.
Daoism is following your breath to find peace.
Daoism is opening up a smile to enable possibility.

Or, more straightforward:

“The basic idea of the Daoists was to enable people to realize that, since human life is really only a small part of a larger process of nature, the only human actions which ultimately make sense are those which are in accord with the flow of Nature — the Dao or the Way.”

Some conflate Daoism with inaction, as another famous line is “The Way is without action”.  But it actually means, “just act naturally” kind of, to go with your instinct and not fight against your nature.  Many Daoists take this to mean emulating animals who act without thought.  Go with the flow, don’t have high expectations, live in the now, and find contentment in the simple things in life.  Seems a really healthy mental state to pursue within or without the context of a form of Faith.  Unfortunately it’s one that humans are extremely ill-equipped to adopt.

I certainly try to do that on occasion, but without high expectations where is motivation? The answer, of course, is to put your all into everything you do without investing yourself in the outcome, kind of a fusion of Daoism and Ghandi, but that’s even harder to pull off.

There’s another side to Daoism I completely don’t understand about the balance of Yin and Yang, how that relates to sex, alchemy, and the pursuit of immortality.  Much of this ties into Chinese mythology and traditional religion, as those that master this balance through tai chi, meditation, herbal drinks, and other methods can achieve immortality.  This also ties into a suggested style of governance that borders on fascism, it seems Laozi favored order over personal freedom and creative expression.  Those parts of the writing are not super heartwarming, but I think there’s not a single perfect school of thought in the world so why should Daoism be any different.

I’m currently rereading the Dao De Jing (foundational text) with Chinese commentary this time around, so looking forward to exploring it more.  That serves as a nice 500 word introduction to the “religion”.

Personal update, still in New England seeing wonderful friends and doing work on some essays in the down time.  Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving.


Art Demands Sacrifice

And with this last post, Jake’s Fulbright times in China come to an end.  Our last leg sees us in Guangdong province, aka the origin of the vast majority of the first Chinese to come to the United States in the 19th century.  After a long, long stretch of travel, we made it to the capitol Guangzhou, and spent a day there exploring various tasty treats and colonial architecture.  I believe I’ve covered the Opium Wars before, but a brief refresher for all of you lovely people.

Basically, when the British first sent envoys to China in the 18th century, the emperor received them, but wanted none of their newfangled inventions, claiming that China was the pinnacle of civilization and had everything it could ever need.  He was quite content to keep selling Chinese silks and tea to Britain though.  This resulted in a staggering trade deficit that the British found offensive to their economy and their sense of global superiority.  How to fix this?  Drugs!  Opium, specifically.  Britain started cultivating opium in India and smuggling the drug to China.  As more and more of the populace got hooked, demand increased and tipped the trade deficit in Britain’s favor while wreaking havoc on Chinese society.  The emperor, of course, didn’t think this was very nice of the British, and told them so, imploring them in polite language to not inflict upon his country evils which they would find abhorrent in their own.  To this, Queen Victoria basically replied, “yeah, but you’re not us,” and continued the whole business.

The emperor appointed Lin Zexu to keep order in Canton (modern Guangzhou which was the only place the British were allowed to trade in China), and he went about confiscating opium and destroying it while beefing up port security.  The British didn’t like this and sent a military detachment to Canton to protest the seizure of (illegal) British goods.  This lead to the first Opium War which ended in China being trounced and ceding not only Hong Kong Island, but also several other treaty ports to Britain.  Twenty years later, Britain decided there was more benefit to be milked from China and they started the Second Opium War, which resulted in more unfair reparations being paid and a lot of Chinese territory going to foreign control (including all of present day Hong Kong to the British).

While in the west we like to think of modern history as only the last century or so, for  the Chinese this is where they start counting.  When you look at it that way, the victim mentality China displays today makes a lot of sense.  From their perspective, China was doing just fine until the Westerners came a long and set off a series of events that resulted in the fall of the Qing, several revolutions, and ultimately the China today.  While Trump wants to rebuild the (mythical for most) prosperity of America four or five decades ago, China’s seeking to regain the clout it had pre-1840’s when it was pretty much the center of the world.

Enough history, on to travel! Guangzhou offered us a lovely walk through a park, some wontons (which are written differently in Cantonese I learned), and some dope colonial architecture.  Pictured is a rice roll (filling and a rice batter that is steamed), shots from Shamian Island where all the concessions were, and the Five Ram Statue.  Legend has it that Guangzhou once suffered terrible famines, and in answer to the people’s prayers, five immortals descended riding goats that held five different grains in their mouths.  The people planted these grains and Guangzhou has had  prosperous crop output ever since.  As a result, it’s known as the “Ram City”.  Cool bit of local legend there.

That evening we shot down to Shenzhen, which served as our base for exploring Hong Kong, Macau, and our port of exit.

During the day we spent in Shenzhen we mostly just chilled and paid a visit to Dafen, the former village now incorporated into Shenzhen that allegedly produces about 70% of the world’s (legal) replica oil paintings.  I went here last year in April, and this time I was struck about the sacrifice that art requires.  This is a fairly tired saying, and usually refers to the sacrifices that artists make in terms of health, money, and personal lives to pursue what they love, right?  I had another take on in while walking through Dafen.  The main section there is a dense warren of workshops where people make frames and recreate works famous and not working from just a cellphone picture.  How insane and amazing is that?  I admit I have no idea what these people make money-wise, but I imagine it isn’t great and probably isn’t commensurate with their talent.  And I would say they’ve got as much good technique as any artist on display in the high-end galleries.  Maybe they lack inspiration for original work, but I can’t say. They’ve certainly put in the time and probably sacrificed to get their skills.  That what made me think there’s another sacrifice that art demands however, a human one. I feel that in order to have a society that produces great artists, many more artists have to try and fail, sacrificing themselves to ignominy so that society still cares enough about art to produce those masterpieces that we all look to.  Without enough people interested in art, art classes would never be offered, grants would never be given, great artists would not be given enough opportunities to practice and make a living with their passion. This then requires a lot of people to study and practice art without seeing any monetary return of recognition.  That’s fine for those who do it as a hobby, but sad for those who staked their lives on the venture.  The whole experience made me very grateful I don’t have that particular ambition.

Anyway, here we have Macau, where I failed to come last time I visited the area, and is kind of a smaller, older cousin to Hong Kong. It sits an hour’s ferry ride directly west from Hong Kong, and consists of a small peninsula attached to the Chinese city of Zhuhai and two islands just south of it.  Portugal got it in the mid 1550’s from the Ming without having to resort to violence, and controlled the region until 1999.  Macau then became another major port through which Chinese goods went West and European goods entered China.

One of these goods, of course, was tea,   And here’s your first fun fact of the blog!  If you look at a map of Eurasia, there’s a big line through Eastern Europe going down.  Nearly all nations West of the line say “tea” as “tea, te, Tee” and variations thereof, which is due to those countries getting their tea from the Dutch, who procured it from Fujian province where the character 茶 is pronounced as such.  Everything left of that line uses words similar to “cha, chai etc.” to refer to the delicious beverage.    Conversely, the Portugese and everywhere East of that line got tea from regions of a different dialect where it’s “cha,” namely Canton for Portugal and norther regions for the rest of the map.  Really cool linguistic question I always wanted to know the answer to.

Macau has been a bit more proactive than Hong Kong about preserving its colonial architecture, and the Senate Square in Macau is perhaps one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever been.

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Just look at it, I’m taking bad pictures with a bad camera and even mine look amazing. The surrounding area near the Leal Senado (Loyal Senate) is chock full of old churches and other cool buildings.  These include an old fort/governor’s residence, an old library that’s been expanded beautifully as you can see below, and perhaps Macau’s most iconic landmark, the façade of the burned down St. Paul’s Cathedral.  The beautiful front wall is all that remains of St. Paul’s College after an 1835 fire, and it’s got some cool imagery including Biblical inscriptions in Chinese.

We neglected to go gambling, but here are some shots of the casinos all the same.

Another of Macau’s unique claims to fame is Macanese (would not have come up with that adjectival form myself) cuisine.  Macanese claim that Macau is one of the few colonial regions where local and settler cuisines truly fused rather than just trading spices and flavors.  It’s real heavy on the seafood, with a lot of random spices thrown in.  We made it down to the south island Coloana to taste some on the Black Sand Beach, and were unfortunately limited to a bowl of soup and cod and potato fritters since we were on the end of our money for the day.  Oh well, at least it was tasty.

We also sampled what are supposedly the best egg tarts in Macau (originally a Portuguese treat, but now distinctly Macanese apparently) made by Lord Stow’s.  Good, but when compared to the ones in from Tai Cheong Bakery in Hong Kong I gotta give it to the Hong Kongers.  A brief comparison.  Lord Stow’s, the original, is real fluffy and flaky with a very eggy filling, not too sweet, and with a whole lot of butter.  If that’s your thing, go for it.  The Tai Cheong offering on the other hand leans more towards custard being sweeter and less buttery. The crust is a bit more cakey as well and overall the tart is just easier to eat.

BTW, that picture of the Hong Kong tart on the right up there features the Central Escalators in the background, which run pretty far up the hill in downtown Hong Kong.    This segues nicely to Hong Kong, a city that I’m finding becomes more photogenic with time, where we spent not one, but two days as it has a lot more to offer.  I must admit I wouldn’t mind spending a longer period of time in Hong Kong as it seems there’s just soo much to explore.  So many cool residential areas and hiking and biking and food.  If it weren’t for the broiling summer and the exorbitant cost of living I’d actually be pretty down to live there, I’d even learn Cantonese.

For the first day we hit up the Hong Kong museum and then explored Kowloon which is across the water from Hong Kong proper and features prominently in many HK gangster movies.  It’s also home to Tim Ho Wan, a Michelin-starred dim sum restaurant where we stuffed our faces for under $20.  Must-visit if you’re in HK.  I had been there before, but I will eat there any chance I get.  Best meal of the trip in my opinion.

Our second day was spent fist on Lamma island just south of HK.  It’s home to two fishing villages that I saw both of when I visited last year.  Our time was limited, so we went over, hung out on the beach and got some dim sum on the water.  It’s an absolutely gorgeous place that is super clean and environmentally conscious.  Next time I go I may take an entire day to do all the hiking and give the beach some proper attention. Then we checked out Sheung Wan, which is the lovely graffiti/antique area I found so charming last time.  I didn’t photograph any old pieces, but the post from last year has a lot more.

Finished with a hike up Victoria Peak to watch the sun set over the water and came back to the States!

Here’s one last batch of cat photos. I thank you all for reading the blog and sticking with me for this time.  The feedback has been amazing and I hope I’ve been able to give you all a slice of the experiences I’ve been having, increasing your understanding of China and myself in the process.  I’ve got at least one more post I want to do, but after that I suspect content will become less frequent. Stay tuned.


Open Vistas and Clogged Arteries

Sam’s suggestion for our itinerary was Lhasa and the roof of the world.  Unfortunately foreigners, or at least Americans, can’t go to Tibet outside of a tour group which is expensive, time-intensive, and not all that fun.  If any of you are considering it I think you’re much better served by going to one of the Tibetan regions of any or all of Sichuan, Qinghai, and Yunnan, which all used to be part of the kingdom of Tibet before it was conquered/liberated (reader’s choice) and divided up. While Tibetan culture is certainly not uniform and dialects are mutually unintelligible, I suspect your average westerner can’t differentiate between Lhasan Tibetan culture and say that of the Khampa region.  So by coming to one of these places you still get the culture, scenery, and cuisine, minus a couple specific sights like the Potala Palace at reduced cost and stress.  Following this logic, we went with Western Sichuan. While we didn’t have enough time to see everything (that would be an endeavor of months at least and require a lot more money and outdoor gear than we have), we got a great taste (literally) and saw some amazing vistas.

Out here in mountainous Sichuan, charter bus is really the only way to go, and in the absence of night buses, we lost a day on the bus getting out to Kangding, gateway to Western Sichuan.  Kangding is nestled in a small valley with a river.  It’s been a trade town since at least the Qing Dynasty and is also known for being the setting of a Tibetan romance movie.  We got in in time to find our wonderful hostel and catch the town light up for the night complete with artificial stars.

For our first day we climbed Mt. Paoma (running horse) which features some nice temples and a nice view of the distant snow-capped mountains.  We took in said scenery with some nice butter tea (which really does feel like you’re drinking butter, and I have unfortunately developed a taste for it) while journaling, followed by a brief look at a monastery and some Tibetan food for dinner.  I’ve mentioned Tibetan food before and damn is it heavy.  Yak meat, stewed veggies, thick dumplings, butter/sweet tea, everything to give you a bursting belly and thick fat buildups in your arteries.  Thank goodness our time is limited here.  I suppose it’s necessary if you’re actually living out on the steppes though and perhaps eating less than three meals per day.

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve never quite got Westerners’ and Chinese’s romanticization of Tibetan culture.  Always seemed a bit of a “noble savage” mindset to me, especially from the Chinese.  But damn, if these aren’t some amazing views.  I’ll let the pictures from our second day spent trekking through a pine forest reminiscent of New England to a grassland speak for themselves. We climbed high above the city and felt we could almost reach out and touch the snowpack. Exhilarating, in a word. Also, I’m pretty sure some of those peaks there are almost at cloud level.

The next and final leg brought us to Tagong.  It pretty much looks like a drivethrough town, but its home to a monastery built on the site where a Buddha statue fell when enroute to another home.  It also happens to be next to some magnificent grasslands  We took advantage of all this wonderful scenery by doing absolutely nothing on our first day.  Or damn near.  I think a combination of the altitude (12,200ft) and travel fatigue is settling in, so we kept ourselves to the monastery in town and some sights nearby.  You don’t have to walk far to see amazing mountains here though.

I can’t fight the feeling that this all bears a striking resemblance to Central California though. Same rural area with brown hills, about 50 degrees colder though.  In the same vein of me not getting the romanticization of Tibetan culture, something about Tibetan Buddhism also doesn’t mesh with me.  Perhaps it’s the huge amount of gold or the added aspects of Tibetan mythology that make it a bit inaccessible, but I don’t seem to find the same sense of serenity in Tibetan monasteries that other Buddhist temples can instill in me.

Dinner was momos (dumplings) and some local potato pasta that was quite good.  We also purchased a bucket of yogurt cus it was too good.  Yes, a bucket.  Yes, we intend to finish it.

Anyway, for the second day we accomplished a lot of unique, significant things while thoroughtly exhausting ourselves.  We spent the majority trekking across the grasslands to one of ethnic Tibet’s largest Buddhist colleges and nunneries (one of each, actually), which brought us up closer to those wonderful snowcaps.  My own photos are somewhat lacking, so I’ll post Sam’s when we figure out how to upload them.

After a brief detour (read: “getting lost”) we circled back to Tagong over a gorgeous ridgeline, stopping every other step to catch our breaths. We then got to sample our hostel’s house-brewed beer, King of Yaks, which claims to be the highest brewery in the world.  Unfortunately all they had in stock was the American Pale Ale, which despite being off my palate drinks rather nicely.  Can’t judge too well tho.  The hostel, I should mention, is run by a Czech-Tibetan couple, which explains the beer and the books on Prague lying around I suppose.  With that and a down day in Kangding, we’re on our way south for the final portion.  See you then.  After the cat picture of course.

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The Greater Wall

Apologies for the delay, turns out it’s hard to keep a travel blog while you’re traveling full time.  I have the pleasure of spending my last few weeks in China with my good friend and fellow UMass alum Sam. She was initially my only taker on the offer to do Russia, so when that fell through we decided on China as a backup plan.  As a result, in addition to my own rendition of our adventures, I’ll be including her first impressions of the Middle Kingdom since, as I’ve mentioned, a lot of stuff I consider everyday might be surprising and of interest to someone fresh off the boat.  I plan to divide our 3.X week travel session into three sections, with the first being our whirlwind tour of China’s greatest hits that I’ve been to before.

Arriving in Beijing comes with a lot of “must sees,” including the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, as well as a fair amount of “must eats.”

Possibly the most iconic symbol of China outside of pandas and the Great Wall is the Forbidden City, so that was our first main day in Beijing.  I don’t think I’ve been there while keeping this blog, so while my pictures are limited I hope they give you an idea of the scope of the place.  Originally built during the Ming Dynasty, the Qing moved right in when they took over and then expanded the palace grounds.  It’s a massive complex of several square kilometers where the royal family (incl. concubines), and their numerous staff and attendants resided, many not allowed to leave once they entered into service (it’s called the Forbidden City for a reason). Mao established the People’s Republic of China on top of it’s main gate (a picture you may have seen before), and it overlooks Tian’anmen Square.

After leaving the impressive forward courtyard and halls you kind of can’t appreciate the full scope as you wander the various side complexes.  It truly is a city.  To get an aerial view, you have to go to Jingshan park which directly backs the palace, is one of my favorite places in Beijing if not China overall, and is almost better than the Palace itself if you can catch the numerous accordion-accompanied choirs practicing.  The park centers around an artificial hill (pretty much the only hill in Beijing), that was built using the dirt excavated while constructing the palace.  The last emperor of the Ming also hung himself from a Scholar’s Tree there as the Manchu’s took Beijing.  It was smoggy the day we went, so here’s a shot overlooking the Palace I took back in June.

Next, obviously, is the Great Wall.  A lot of Sinologists argue that its a pretty crappy symbol for the country, as millions of Chinese died in its construction and it never stopped a single foreign invader.  Not one.  I had previously been, but on a friend’s suggestion we went to a new section called Jiankou (arrow notch) which is unrestored.  To get there we took a couple buses and then a minivan to a tiny village and hiked up to the wall. You can see our target watchtower at the top of the ridge if you squint.

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After a shorter hike than anticipated, we got on top of the wall using a stepladder.  A stepladder.  No wonder it never kept out any barbarians.  From there we had one of the most surreal views I think I’ve ever seen.  You can see the wall snaking for miles through the mountains flanked by calico forests.  The time of year was really perfect, not to cold, very few tourists, and beautiful spots of red and gold on the trees (hence the calico descriptor above, does that work?).

The unrestored wall was a real treat, and we hiked it all the way to Mutianyu, the restored section of the wall I had visited before. Nice to see the contrast, and even better was getting to avoid paying the admission fee!  This section of the wall, like many others, was built during the Ming Dynasty, but the first Great Wall was built by the Qin in the second century BCE and others subsequently expanded it.  If anyone is considering a trip to Beijing I cannot recommend this experience more, message me for details.

For the last day in Beijing we went with a fellow Fulbrighter and her Beijing-born mother to the Summer Palace.  The original Summer Palace was massive and got sacked during the Second Opium War in 1860, so the Dowager Empress rebuilt part of it for her birthday using funds earmarked for the navy (she was one of the major reasons the Qing fell), and today the restored and unrestored sections are two separate parks.  Rachel, the Fulbrighter, and her mother have been coming here their entire lives, and so we had amazing tour guides.  The smog cleared out that day so we got some beautiful sunlight glistening on the artificial lake from atop the artificial hill.

We then sat down and drank an ungodly amount of tea while giving Sam a synopsis of pretty much every major Chinese book and legend in existence.  Some of it probably stuck.  Maybe.  Sorry, Sam.  I learned a lot too, and got a particular kick out of a couplet that Rachel’s mom pointed out, pictured here.

The first half on the left reads: 物含妙理总堪寻 (wu han miao, li zong kan xun), which can be understood as: “Objects hold wonder, and Reason can always be sought.”  Rachel’s grandfather, a physicist, loves this quote apparently because it contains the characters 物 (object) and 理 (reason), which together make 物理 (wuli), the Chinese word for physics.  He feels, we were told, that this sentence perfectly captures what physics is about, seeking wonder in objects and understanding the laws of the universe.

The second bit on the right is: 境自远麈皆入咏 (jing zi yuan zhu jie ru yong), which can be loosely understood as “All natural beauty should be praised in verse.”  I couldn’t agree more.

As far as eats, noodles, chunbing (Chinese fajitas), Peking Duck, roast meat, and tasty cakes were all had and enjoyed greatly. (But not all photographed)

Following that was a whirlwind tour of Xi’an consisting of 27 hours, which is sufficient in my opinion if you’re satisfied with just seeing a handful of terracotta warriors and not the whole army laid out in their pits.  We started with a breakfast in the Muslim quarter before visiting the Great Mosque, the Drum Tower, biking along the city walls, and finishing with hot pot and what is in my opinion some of the best ice cream in the world near the Big Goose Pagoda. The next morning we hit up the provincial museum (voted best in China, with real terracotta soldiers on display), and then hopped on a train to Chengdu.

That train put us back in beautiful Chengdu, one of my favorite cities in China where I wouldn’t mind retiring to to sip tea and play majohng all day.  Fittingly, for our first day we went to a teahouse in a temple and finished off with a meal of mapo tofu.

Sichuanese tea culture is a bit unique.  Many of you are probably somewhat familiar with the Japanese/Chinese tea tradition where one person sits behind a table and performs an elaborate ceremony, brewing several types of tea which they then serve to the guests in tiny cups.  This is from Fujian province originally.  Sichuan is much more straightforward.  You show up, pay a small fee, and you get a covered cup (called a gai-war, long a) of green tea which you can sit with and re-steep to your heart’s content while amusing yourself with cards, conversation, or your own company.  I like both styles.  Here’s a gaiwar for reference, you’ve probably seen them in movies.


Our second day was spent climbing Mt. Qingcheng, which turns out to be the homeland of Daoism. Who knew?  Misty as it was, it was a really enjoyable hike, and the one scene that caught my inner Romantic (as in 19th century Romanticism) was this shot from a temple about half-way up.  Something about the shingles stacked like so many books, covered with a green dust and nestled in the forest had such a calming effect on my heart.  Also the fact that this picture could have been taken hundreds of years ago (if they had cameras) and you wouldn’t be able to tell.

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That post on Daoism is coming, I promise, but the more I learn, the more I want to learn more, so it’s gonna take some time to write it all up.  Anyway, besides that we visited Dujiangyan, a 2,200 year old, still functioning irrigation project, see my post here on it, and the panda base, which I talked about last year as well in this post.  Here’s some pictures from this time around.

With that, we’re off to western Sichuan for part II.  But before we leave, I’ve shaved in honor of No-shave November and used up the last of the wonderful bay rum shaving soap gifted to me by my grandmother Joanna.  Check back in for more beard in a month. Also cat pictures, because what is this blog without cat pictures?


Banana Chips and Yam Strips

Hello beloved readers!  Writing to you from not-Harbin.  Changsha, actually. Now that Fulbright’s officially over (October 19th), I suppose this will become a travel blog until I’m back in the Bay Area in a few weeks.  It’s really just the Harbin phase of Fulbright though that’s ended though, as I still have two articles waiting to be published as well as the whole book project (which is coming along, rest assured).  Here are two shots from my last few days in Harbin, one which shows why I wanted to stay, and one which shows why I wanted to get the hell out.  I hear the smog’s cleared up for the time being since I left.

So, what the hell is Changsha and why the hell am I here?  It’s the capital of Hunan province, formerly the capital of the state of Chu, and it’s mainly known for being quite near Mao Zedong’s birthplace of Shaoshan as well as Mt. Heng, which is my reason for coming.  Mt. Heng is the southernmost of the five holy mountains of Daoism, also known as the Five Yue, was the site of a major battle during the anti-Japanese war in the 30’s, and was the only Yue I hadn’t climbed.

To make it work logistically I had to arrive a day before climbing, which gave me a day to catch up on my youtube, buy onward train tickets, and wander Changsha.  Unfortunately the provincial museum was closed so all I did was wander the Martyrs’ Park.  It was quite a nice park though, toting itself as a “natural oxygen bar” with a big memorial hall and a huge lake surrounded with beautiful plants.  I have to admit, I like southern China much more than northern China in terms of flora.  Love the green, love the bamboo, don’t love the summer temperatures so much though.  Also don’t love the fact that it’s a fair bit harder to understand people here.  If I come back to China though I might consider trying to come more south.

Here’s some pictures of the lovely park.. I went back the morning after climbing the mountain as well when people on the shady side of forty were out in droves dancing, doing tai chi, playing cards, singing, and walking among other lovely early morning activities.

Back to the mountain though, the original title of this post was “Moving on in Circles”.  That’s because the morning after I climbed the western Yue Mt. Hua last year in Xi’an, I opened my email to find that I had gotten the Fulbright grant :D.  Here’s my face at that moment, tears and all.


Then, about a year ago, I climbed the northern Yue (the other Mt. Heng, no relation) rather unexpectedly as I didn’t realize it was near where we were.  At that point I thought, “wouldn’t it be cool to do all five?”  And as of yesterday, I did! The two inbetween were done earlier this year, and so as of yesterday I’ve completed the circle, coming back to the start of Fulbright, as I move on.  It’s a rather arbitrary achievement, but it feels good, and again, there’s something Daoist about arbitrary things according to my friend who understands these things.

In an effort to better my own understanding, expect an introductory post on Daoism coming soon.  Anyway, in the interest of being more travel-y on the blog, I thought I’d share the journal entries I took up and down the mountain along with the pictures.

9am, base of the mountain.  Can’t tell if it’s smog or fog in the air.  I hope it’s the latter, but even if it’s the former I’m here and I’m climbing.  Feels good to be ending Fulbright this way.

11ish, Half-Mountain Pavillion.  Making good time.  I was told it would take five hours one way, but here I am at the halfway point already! I’d rather push the pace a bit on the way up so I know how to budget my time coming down.  Walking along that river for the first stretch was absolutely gorgeous.  Smooth water cascading over rough stone with green all around.  It kind of reminded me of camp more so than other natural places I’ve been in China.  Maybe camp is just my ideal of natural beauty and I compare everything amazing to it.

11:40, Yanxia Tea Field.  The fog (I’m fairly certain that’s what it is) burned off briefly, and I’m currently stopped for some tea gown on the mountain. Taking the opportunity to eat and recharge as well.  The mountain is apparently foggy 2/3 of the year, including today, which they claim is great for growing tea.  I was happy for the fog tho, as the climb had me sweaty and hot as was. Didn’t need sunlight adding to that.  The tea was lovely, a nice green that drank super smooth, had a good nose (to use wine terminology), and served as a great pickmeup after waking up at 5am.  The water was also the right temperature. I’ve learned this year that different teas require different temperatures of water. Make green tea (loose leaf at least) with boiling water, and you’ll usually have it too bitter and lacking flavor.  Gotta use water at around 70-80 degrees (Celsius) instead and steep it for just over five minutes.  Same goes for oolong.  For black and red teas you want to use boiling water and then strain it as soon as possible, doesn’t need to steep  There are apparently electric kettles that actually have different buttons for different teas.  How cool is that?

At Zhurong Peak, about 1:30.  Can’t see a thing.  Seems I climbed into another fog layer.  I’m not necessarily here for the view thought, I’m here for the climb and the accomplishment of scaling the Five Yue…

It was here that I was interrupted by a woman hellbent on striking up a conversation with me.  I answered at first (pretending to be Russian since she opened in English, very glad I did too), but she was way way too friendly and probing.  She asked for my phone number, where I lived in Harbin, where I lived in Moscow (lol), just on and on.  I’m used to this kind of curiosity from Chinese people, but I was a bit annoyed as I was writing the journal at the moment and wanted to reflect on the hike.  I kept trying to go back to it and giving noncommittal answers.  She didn’t really take the hint and eventually I got really uncomfortable, said my friend was waiting for me, and left. Pretty rude, but I felt justified, and at least she thinks it was a Russian being mean to her.

I had to hike below the cable car stop to finally get a chance to sit down and continue writing.  Is it selfish to want solitude when other people want to engage?  Yes.  Is it wrong or unreasonable?  In certain situations perhaps, but not that one I believe.  Back to my original train of thought, some might be dissappointed upon hiking 13km only to find the peak of the mountain shrouded in mist.  And not the mystical kind either, just the kind that blocks off all views.  I’m not one of those people though; for me the ascent is as integral to the experience as summiting. I do wonder though at the thought processes of most of the Chinese hikers.  Many of them take the bus to the cable car at the halfway point, take the cable car up, and then walk the last 4km (although some pay for a sedan ride on top of that).  If it were me, paying all that money just to see a sheet of white would feel like I’d been cheated almost.  I can only deduce that they just want to say they’ve done the summit, which is a little sad.  Of course, some might need the buses, as un-Daoist as they are, due to physical limitations.  But even so, I saw a fair amount of elderly hikers on the footpath with me (they were actually part of my motivation, “if they can do it so can I,” y’know?).

Some final pictures.  I really do love the fog effect when hiking.  You have no idea if there’s a floor beyond the path or a beautiful partially obscured valley.  There was also a martyr’s memorial dedicated to the fallen Chinese in the 30’s built by the Republicans.  I was surprised to see that the Communists have maintained and improved it.  They normally have such a hate-on for the R.O.C that I was genuinely surprised to see its sun symbol displayed (picture 6). Nice bit of camaraderie that.

What’s the title about?  My lovely fuel for climbing which have been my snacks of choice for every major trip in China. Thanks for sticking it through the post.  See you next time.

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Harbin(gers) of Hacking (Coughs)

See what I did there? Eh? Eh?  Jokes aside, my heart goes out to everyone in California affected by the wildfires.  Stay safe, stay alert, and invest in a good smoke mask.  I found an article and was later sent it my my lovely grandfather about how apparently the AQI (air quality index) in the Bay Area is similar to Beijing. It’s funny timing, as Harbin has had smog two out of the last four days, which has slightly negatively impacted my mood.

I’ll be honest, my first and second reactions to the article were laughter, neither of them good.  The first, worse reaction, was one of schaudenfreude, as the numbers reported were under 200 ppm of PM 2.5 particles (which is a relatively good day for Beijing). So it was funny to see California freaking out over what’s an everyday occurrence (the air quality, not the fires) in Beijing and Harbin during the winter. Wood smoke is definitely more invasive than regular smog at that level I feel though, and this is in no way meant to invalidate what people are going through.

The second was laughing at myself as I remembered that something being commonplace doesn’t make it good or alright (see: most of the shit minorities in the States have to deal with), and while I’ve grown used to the smog here, it’s still taking months off my life. So a bit of dark humor at my own expense there.  The smog is actually one of the top reasons I’m looking forward to heading back to the States, although the Bay may feel just like Harbin.

Real talk though, this is serious and terrifying, here’s a link to resources and a go bag checklist.  http://www.7×7.com/how-to-help-north-bay-fires-2494885475.html


That politics post I promised is still percolating for lack of a better term.  But in other news I submitted my Fulbright final report and am moving out of my apartment tomorrow! (At time of writing).  I’ll still be in Harbin for about a week before heading down to Shenzhen to do a visa run (I made plans a week later than I should have due to contradicting dates, ah well).  Then a bit more travel in China before returning to the U.S.  Can’t wait to see all you lovely people.

Spent most of this week at the library finishing their useful books, and I thought I’d share with you an interesting anecdote.  There was a family of Polish Karaites, the Lopatos, who came to Harbin in 1902.  They opened a tobacco workshop that later became a factory and were pretty much the only game in town until the 30’s.  In ’35 most of the family left for Paris, but a son of one the founders, Mikhail stayed on.  Somehow, through astounding business acumen and substantial bribes I’m sure, he wound up supplying cigarettes to the Japanese troops during the 40’s. This, of course, gave him a lot of contact with the Japanese military.  What they didn’t know was that at the same time he was using his private train to ship food and supplies (including cigarettes presumably) to the Soviet troops on the front, which seems like an amazing logistical feat.  In addition to material goods, he also told them all he could about the Japanese troop distributions.  Gotta love a little espionage.  He was eventually found out and captured by the Japanese, and told many times he would be executed.  For some reason though, they delayed and one day just unlocked the cage and left.  He found out from his wife after walking all the way home that an atomic bomb had just been dropped on Hiroshima, good timing for him I guess. When the Soviets got to Harbin, they didn’t execute him like a filthy capitalist, rather they bought his tobacco facilities at above market cost, the profit from which he used to retire like a king.  I don’t expect him to show up in the novel, besides perhaps a mention of Lopato tobacco, but I thought it was a really cool anecdote to share.

One word in the above paragraph may have stood out to you, that being “Karaite.  I had to look up what it was too, and apparently they’re a group of people who could be called a sect of Judaism, but sometimes prefer to be considered an entirely separate religion when advantageous (I’ll get to that below). According to the Chinese text I read, Karaite can either be interpreted to mean “readers of the scripture” in Hebrew, or “black/dark” in Arabic. They follow the Torah/Old Testament, but do not consider the Talmud and other Jewish law as divinely inspired and therefore invalid, which separates them from “Rabbinical Jews”.  They have separate synagogues and services, but in Czarist Russia they were victims of the same anti-semitism.  In the late 1700’s though, one of the Russian Karaites made the argument that since they allegedly settled in Crimea before the birth of Christ, they weren’t responsible for his death, and therefore shouldn’t be subject to the discriminatory laws levied on Jews.  Catherine II agreed (when presented with some doctored evidence), and the Karaites got a status boost.  According to wikipedia, there are about 4,000 Karaites in the U.S., and the only city with a dedicated Karaite synagogue is Daly City!  The more you know!

I suspect I’ll make a few more posts before I leave China, but I’m unsure if I’ll keep this blog up when I return to the States.  In any case, here’s a few more pictures.

Strange Things

I’m at a loss for real content , but I took so many strange pictures this week I had to share them.  It’s almost as if Harbin felt the pictures I’ve been sharing with you for the past year weren’t odd enough and needed to make up the difference.  Also, happy mid-Autumn Festival again!  I was still keeping this blog when it happened last year, so feel free to reread last year’s post if you need a refresher as to the holiday’s particulars.

Me?  I celebrated with a delicious mooncake and went out to Central Street for one of my final visits of this year (very sad, also where some of the odd photos happened incidentally.)  I ended up walking along the river back westward until I got to the “music park” which is this odd double hallway with no apparent purpose.

Exploring south from there, I found that Harbin still has ways to surprise me.  I ended up in a new neighborhood apparently called Wangfujing after the area in Beijing.  The money there couldn’t be more apparent if you painted dollar signs on all the buildings (or yuan signs 元 as it were, but you get my meaning). Porsches, Jaguars and BMW’s abounded, parked in front of super high end stores, all topped off with some super modern parks and plazas.  I left relatively quickly.

There’s something odd about these big spaces clearly designed for some purpose when left empty.  Firstly, sometimes it makes the purpose a bit mysterious, secondly it leaves a weird feeling of disuse with you that doesn’t quite sit right.  There’s a word in either Japanese or German I believe, that refers to the feeling up unease you get when in an empty place that is normally highly populated.  What I felt there was a bit of that, but also the mystery of the site’s nebulous purpose.  Somewhat similar to ancient ruins. Scary, isn’t it? That a modern place can evoke those same emotions.

Other weird photos: a cute kangaroo, a surprisingly good western breakfast served at *Pizza Hut* of all places (my first time going to one, and it comes with two lattes, super super good deal), and an alpaca and a pony, just chilling in front of a mall.  Go figure.

In somewhat more infuriating news, I’m still unable to access the Harbin history section of the city library.  I went a few times back in June and got a huge amount of info in a short amount of time.  Then I left for about two months (it was closed for the brief period I was here in August) and returned to find that the Library was undergoing renovations until early September.  I could have gone then, but I was distracted by such things as article drafting, grad school apps, and other various essays.  Last week I intended to go, only to find that it was closed until the 5th for more renovations, apparently the first round didn’t take.  Went again today (the 5th) only to find that the room I needed was closed until Monday.  Arg, /rant over.  The amount of times that I’ve been intending to go and arrive to find it shut are staggering and irritating to the utmost.

I’m coping by actually starting to write part of the novel and playing excessive amounts of videogames.  Gotta get em all in before I go back to a real life after all.  On that note, I’d like to introduce you to the game I’ve just picked up, Cuphead. It’s a beautiful game done in the style of 1930’s cartoons, some of my favorite things, and was actually all hand-drawn, a process that took over three years it seems.  It’s fiendishly difficult, but wonderful to look at, here’s a short review of it.

Also coping by taking cat pictures, and you thought I’d forgotten.