A Travellerspoint blog

October 2008

Past and Future

Meandering Up the River of Time from Xi’an to Shanghai

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“Where you visit in China?” asked the middle-aged Chinese businessman with whom we shared a table at the Beijing airport café (a not-uncommon custom in China -- in a nation of a billion people, you don’t waste seats just because you don’t know someone).

“Only Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai,” we replied. “Not too much time, too short to see such a big country.”

“Ah,” he smiled. “But you see all times in China -- Beijing present, Xi’an past, Shanghai future.”

I had never heard it put that way, but I really like it. Xi’an (pronounced she-AHN) was the capital of China from before the time of Christ, under the first emperor to unify the country, Qin Shi Huang. He was a brilliant military strategist who brought China together at sword-point, but he lacked diplomacy and was a bit of a megalomaniac. He had a massive tomb built starting when he was still in his thirties, then had the architects killed (Dale Carnegie would not approve...) and ultimately was buried there with a huge army of life-size warriors fashioned from terra cotta, each completely unique. Rediscovered by local farmers digging a well in 1974, this has become one of China’s biggest tourist draws. And it is quite fascinating.

Ever wonder how people forget there is something like this buried beneath them?

”Boy, after two millenia, I really can’t wait to get out of this dirt and have a bath...”

While Europe languished in the Dark Ages, Xi’an was the center of the world. It was the beginning and end of the Silk Road, and traders from all over the world made their way there. The present-day city walls, the best-preserved of any city in China, date from the Ming dynasty in the 1400s and stretch 14 miles around the city center. If you think that’s impressive, consider that the Tang dynasty walls in 800 A.D. were seven times larger.

Fun to walk around; scaling, not so much

Xi’an today is unfortunately a not-all-that-picturesque city of 5 million. Inside the walls it is mostly broad boulevards and high-rise hotels...

Looking toward the ancient Bell Tower

...but there are pockets of very beautiful and historic old houses built of the city’s distinctive gray brick.

A bustling market street near the walls, restored to medievaly goodness

From Xi’an, we zipped forward in time what seemed about 4,000 years, to Shanghai, China’s bustling east coast metropolis and showcase of wildly futuristic architecture.

The Pudong New Area, home to science fiction-style buildings like the Oriental Pearl TV Tower

Arriving at the airport, we took the world’s only implemented Maglev train (Magnetic Levitation for non-geeks, in which the train hovers over the track on big opposing magnets) into the city -- a 35km journey that takes 8 minutes. The cars driving toward the airport beside the track flash by so quickly, it looks like they are speeding in the opposite direction.

I am not making this up

Shanghai has a rather interesting history; in the mid-1800s it became the Chinese colonial trade center for England, France, and America, and by the 1920s it was the greatest Western city in the East after Hong Kong. Home to banks and shipping companies, brothels and opium dens, it was the Paris of the Orient (or the Whore of the Orient, depending on whom you talked to). Stretching along the west bank of the Huangpu River opposite Pudong is the Bund, a street of beautiful Art Deco skyscrapers that rivalled New York in their day.

Memories of Shanghai’s Jazz Age

Incidentally, Lynn’s sister Jane (a John Denver fan) inquired whether there were in fact “Shanghai Breezes,” as he sang about in a song. Standing on the promenade overlooking the Bund, we can categorically deny the existance of breezes in Shanghai -- gales is more like it; it was very windy.

The Roaring ‘20s in Shanghai weren’t all galas, gambling and gangsters, though. Shanghai was the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party, which “liberated” the city in 1949 during the Communist/Nationalist civil war. The Customs House on the Bund with its giant clock tower modelled after Big Ben, once a symbol of Western colonial profit-taking, became a broadcast tower for propaganda during the Cultural Revolution.

The triumph of the people over capitalist oppression, Shanghai style

But those days are so far past in Shanghai they might as well be buried with Xi’an’s terra cotta warriors. Today, Shanghai’s streets are flooded with expats doing business and locals shopping for the latest handbags from Gucci or Coach (some of them even non-counterfeit!). Like Beijing, or perhaps even more so, Shanghai is a city firmly faced forward, proudly displaying its past, but rushing to embrace its future.

Whatever tomorrow holds, Shanghai is ready to embrace it

Posted by Bwinky 22:36 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (2)


Additional Thoughts on Boshintang and China's Young People

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Tomorrow, we leave Shanghai for Hanoi, Vietnam. There will be a post soon about our time in Xi'an and Shanghai. Meanwhile, these further thoughts/shamelss plugs related to recent posts:

1. Can't get enough appetizing mental images of me chewing on doggy stew in Seoul? Read our friend April's take on the evening. Her blog is really great, and she goes into even more yummy details...


2. If you have not done so, check out our other blog. Flat Shunshi is a paper-thin Japanese boy who is accompying us on our travels (he is the Asian cousin of Flat Stanley, whom you may or may not have heard of). He is a school project for our seven-year-old nephew Josiah, and he has his own blog...


3. We are currently staying in Shanghai with a young man named Tiger (no, not that Tiger, though in his Couchsurfing profile pic he is wearing a red shirt). We spent some time talking tonight and conversation took a political turn. He had this to say about the attitudes of Chinese young people...


"Most Chinese people are not really that interested in democracy. The government is opening up things so that they can make a lot of money and buy a nice home and a car, and that's more important to them so they want the government to keep doing what it's doing. They want the government to be more open and truthful with them, and they would like more freedom, but right now things are going well so they don't mind the status quo.

"I think that there will be democracy in China, maybe in five or ten years. But most of the people my age that I know are actually a little scared of democracy because we have never known anything but this. And we saw what happened in Taiwan when they went democratic, and there was a lot of corruption."

Posted by Bwinky 08:58 Archived in China Comments (2)


Portaits of a city in transition

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For two weeks in August, Beijing stepped to the front of the world stage, and served notice that it is a metropolis ready to join the ranks of the world’s alpha cities.

The Bird’s Nest: it’s not just for soup anymore

There is perhaps no other nation on earth that is modernizing more rapidly, and today’s China is far less about...

Long live the glorious people’s revolution


The National Grand Theatre: the mothership has landed

Or so one would think from first impressions of the city, which has more newly-constructed glitzy skyscrapers and fantastic modern architecture than you can shake an Olympic gold medal at. Or would, if you could see them...

Smog over Tian’anmen Square

We arrived here on Sunday the 12th from Seoul, and were immediately struck by how different Beijing is from our expectations. Oh, sure, the major tourist sights are the icons of its imperial past:

The Forbidden City

The Summer Palace

The Great Wall at Jinshanling

But this is not your father’s China. Today, the subway is full of posters for LG and Toyota rather than communist propaganda. You only have to spend a few hours walking among Beijing’s fashionably-dressed young people, more interested in their cellphones than Chairman Mao’s little red book, to realize that this is a country that is undergoing a second Cultural Revolution -- and one that is potentially even greater in its impact on Chinese society.

The future of China: you can’t fool the children of the revolution

The China of old, with its olive-drab uniform of communist conformity, has crumbled under the weight of a new consumer-driven culture that appears content to coexist with the totalitarian political system. This is really not surprising when you consider how deeply ingrained capitalism is in the soul of the Chinese people -- as the hoards of souvenir hawkers will attest. One old lady, “Ginger,” hiked with us for an hour on a very strenuous portion of the Great Wall, teaching us Chinese and "helping" Lynn up steep steps, all as prelude to pulling out a picture book and starting the sales pitch. That’s commitment to profit.

But step away from the neon and glitter of Beijing’s main thoroughfares, and you discover just how thin the veneer of modernity can be. For every brand-new modern edifice, there is a centuries-old hutong (alley) full of traditional courtyard houses, where life clings to the old ways of public baths and coal-burning stoves.

Out for a late afternoon stroll

In this Beijing, old men still gather in doorways to play mah jong and haircuts are given on a stool in the square. We paused in a particularly evocative alley, and an old lady invited us in to see her two-room, coal-heated apartment (she didn’t seem to care that we spoke no Chinese, she happily carried both sides of the conversation).

This hutong is home to at least 6 families

A common tongue isn’t necessary for friendship

Beijing is a city in transition, and we found that most evident in the faces of her people. I will close this post by letting them tell their own stories.


Posted by Bwinky 17:11 Archived in China Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Seoul Food

Burpin’ Boshintang with April in Seoul

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After our detour home and to Germany, we arrived back in Asia on Thursday, October 9th, landing in Korea, where our friend April Cardinal is teaching kids English in Seoul.

”Augh, my students were so naughty today!”

Hiking in the mountains over Seoul

I have to confess that we originally scheduled this stop primarily as a chance to visit April rather than out of an actual desire to see Seoul. Fair or not, Korea didn’t hold much interest for me; from my limited (read: from watching M*A*S*H) knowledge, it struck me as a limbo between Japan and China -- neither as dynamic as Tokyo nor as historic as Beijing.

Well, after visiting, I have to say that my opinion is somewhat altered; Seoul is quite a pleasant place. We had a terrific time with April, and it was fun to learn about a culture that we really had not put a lot of time into learning about. We did take a bit of time to see some of the historic sights, including the Gyeongbukgong palace, Korea’s version of the Forbidden City, where they do an elaborate changing-of-the-guards ceremony accompanied by incredibly discordant music -- I didn’t know it was possible to produce such screeches from a trumpet.

”Hmm, I hope none of the tourists notice that my beard is fake...”

Speaking of screeches, we also indulged in a night of karaoke. We were joined by Jane and Ami, two of April’s fellow expat teachers.

Butchering Switchfoot’s “Meant To Live” together

Jane and Ami are doing much better with their duet

By far the most interesting sight was the tour we took to the Demilitarized Zone at Panmunjeom.

The UN’s JSA (Joint Security Area) -- that bombastic white building is North Korea

Under the watchful eyes of soldiers of the South...

”I love how badass these glasses make me look!”

...and the North...

”Running dog capitalist pig tourists, I will not even bother to watch you with my binoculars...”

...you are ushered into the conference room where negotiations are held, and allowed to step ever-so-briefly into one of the world’s most reclusive nations.

The most moving part of the trip is the stop at the Freedom Bridge, where prisoners of war were exchanged after the cease-fire. There is a wall of memorials that has become something of a place of pilgrimage for those who fought, and families separated by politics.


What was unexpectedly fascinating, though, was learning about Korean cuisine. I came knowing very little about the food here, so the whole weekend turned into a bit of a culinary odyssey. We started with dinner at a Korean barbeque with Jane. Everyone sits around a grill and cooks their own yummy little strips of marinated beef or pork.

What’s Webber got that we ain’t got?

Contrary to what you’d think, vegetarian food can be tough to find in Asia. One that’s practically a national dish in Korea is bibimbop, a mixture of bean sprouts, pickled veggies, and a fried egg. And, as a bonus, it’s really fun to say -- try it... “BEE-beem-bop.” Bonus points if you can say it three times, fast.

”I don’t care how you say it, I’m just glad it doesn’t contain squid!”

Of course, you can’t discuss food in Korea without talking about the national culinary obsession: kimchi. The “cabbage that they ravage with the chili paste taste.”

”Kimchi, kimchi, it is good for you and me!”

Those quotes are from the English Village Boyz’ “Kickin’ It In Geumchon,” a hilarious hip-hop ode to being an expat in Seoul. Go watch it:


As they say, kimchi is cabbage that has been mixed with chilis and dried shrimp and other stuff, and left to ferment for up to a year, buried underground in big jars like these...

55 gallons of kimchi goodness

Hardly a meal goes by that Koreans don’t eat kimchi. After mealtimes, the subway has a distinctly spicy, vinegary smell -- and I swear I am not making that up. Koreans claim that the reason they never got SARS is the medicinal value of their kimchi. I can believe it -- if I was a germ, I wouldn’t want to go anywhere near the stuff either. In fact, I am not a germ and I still don't want to. It really smells bad.

Street food is big here, too -- especially food on a stick.

Various animal parts and balls of stuff

That, believe it or not, is a hot dog rolled in ketchup and french fries, all on a convenient stick

Of course, there is also plenty of western-style food in Korea as well...

Hey, I don’t write ‘em, I just take the pictures

They actually do not sell any cheese here

April’s favorite: sweet potato pizza with honey mustard sauce... much better than it sounds!

Without question, though, our biggest foodie adventure was our quest to go eat boshintang...

Dog stew.

No, it is not a myth, they do in fact eat dog in Korea -- specially bred food dogs that look like big huskies, not pet dogs kidnapped off the street. I guess it’s not as common as it used to be, because we had to hunt down a small basement restaurant in a very off-the-beaten-path neighborhood, and there we sat down and tucked into a big ole' steamin’ bowl of spicy Fido soup.

Don’t think about what you’re about to put in your mouth!

Mmmmm... Boshintang!

And the verdict? Well, it was...


Actually, pretty gross.

Neither of us could finish more than half our bowl. The meat didn’t taste too bad; it was kind of gamey and really fatty, sort of like mutton. The broth was so hot that it kind of killed the taste, really. But it was hard to get past the smell; it had a distinct scent of, well, wet dog. Which it was.

The mother and daughter who ran the place were really sweet. They wanted their picture with us; apparently not too many Westerners come through their doors.

I'm smiling on the outside, but I'm thinking, ”I have a doggy hair stuck in my teeth...”

A drawing we did for their wall

As our weekend together drew to a close, we sat in a cafe on Sunday morning, savoring a good cup of coffee. Savored it so long, we actually missed our flight to Beijing. Good food and good friends -- it can really be addictive.

All except the boshintang. That made me want to arf.

Posted by Bwinky 22:21 Archived in South Korea Tagged food Comments (0)

Beer Doesn’t Kill Germans; Germans Kill Germans. With Beer.

Tales from Stuttgart’s Oktoberfest

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It's October in Germany, and that can mean only one thing: the miracle that comes from combining water, malt, yeast and vine flower cones...

Bier hier, Bier hier, or else I will collapse

After a week and a half of mostly staying around Lynn’s sister Gail’s place or the military bases getting practical matters taken care of, on Saturday night we finally got outselves out of the house. One of Mark’s former coworkers, Dave, invited us to join him and his wife Arlene for the evening at the Canstatter Volksfest, Stuttgart’s answer to Munich’s Oktoberfest. I haven't properly fact-checked this (hey, it’s election season so who’s checking facts), but apparently this is the second largest fall festival (read: huge beer-focused event) in Germany.

Knowing that finding a parking place in the city would be even more fiendishly difficult than usual, we took the S-Bahn (commuter train) into the city. Immediately upon arriving at the festival grounds stop, we were surrounded by already-tipsy Germans wearing red and white scarves -- the VfB Stuttgart football team had apparently just wrapped up a 4-1 trouncing of Bremen... and the whole stadium came next door to the Volksfest to celebrate. Beer and soccer hooligans, one of the classic recipes for fun, fun, fun!

"We're Nummer Eins! We're Nummer Eins!"

Not being much for ferris wheels and other carnival rides (and it was only about 45º), we had a walk around the grounds, and then found a nice beerhall to grab some dinner.

Yes, that girl in the Dirndl is wearing light-up bunny ears

The tents were all completely packed, and very loud with music and drunk people. Not the oom-pah bands you'd expect, though; the first one we walked through had a rock band playing "The Time Warp" from Rocky Horror Picture Show. A thousand Germans screaming, "It's just a jump to ze left..." was as surreal as it sounds. We grabbed a seat outside in the cold and ordered up some nice, light Schwäbisch (southwestern German) grub: personally, I murdered a couple of smoked pork steaks with sauerkraut and rye bread.

Lynn is having a love affair with those spätzl, and Dave seems surprised at how good his roast chicken is

Now, normally, you have to understand that German society is very polite and reserved, and order is the guiding principle of life. At festivals like this, however, the concept of "restraint" is utterly absent -- as exemplified by the mugs of beer, which only come in one size: a maß (as in "massive"), which is about a liter.

Gail is a "limonade"-drinking lightweight

Interestingly, Germans generally have a much more healthy attitude toward alcohol than Americans. Kids are allowed to start drinking beer when they are teenagers, and as a rule they are very responsible drinkers. Most of the people at the fest were out having a great time and behaving themselves.

Nice lederhosen, dude!

Then suddenly, as we were eating, there was a crash from within the tent, and a bunch of beer-besotted ruffians came tumbling out in a melée of fists and spurting blood. Within seconds, there were security guards and Polizei officers everywhere, and sirens as paddywagons pulled up.

Yes, that's a guy with blood all over his shirt, five feet away from us

"Bad jungen, bad jungen, was machst du ven zey komm für you?"

We spent the rest of the evening finishing our drinks and watching the entertainment as the German cops chased down, clubbed, and arrested the instigators. There's an old parable I love about the nations of Europe...

Heaven is where the police are British, the cooks are French, the mechanics are German, the lovers are Italian, and the whole thing is organized by the Swiss. Hell is where the cooks are British, the mechanics are French, the police are German, the lovers are Swiss, and the whole thing is organized by the Italians.

How true.

Posted by Bwinky 03:42 Archived in Germany Tagged food Comments (3)

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