Saturday, December 15, 2012

Beijing Hot Pot

 All of Asia loves a good hot pot.  The Koreans have a hot pot.  The Japanese have their shabu-shabu.  The Vietnamese and the Thai have their versions of hot pot.  In China, it seems everyone loves a hot pot.  Especially in the winter time.  They say the food warms your insides on a cold winter day.  In truth, I think it is the cooking that warms their outsides.  You see, there is nothing more steamy and hot than a hot pot restaurant.  They are like saunas, with steam condensing on the windows and the floors and the chairs and any cool surface. 

Now, also consider the fact that central heating is not normally allowed in buildings in the South of China.  It is an old rule, for conservation of coal and natural gas, that only buildings to the North of the HuaiHe river can be built with central heating.  What this means in practice is that, from Nanjing to the South, public buildings are not much warmer than the outside air during the winter time.  Train stations and government offices are only about 5 degrees warmer than the outside.  Believe me, you can freeze while waiting for a train or while visiting the immigration office.  Private dwellings can get around the restriction by utilizing electric heat.  (Our apartment has a heat pump.)  But the majority of Chinese people that I know do not have any heating system at all.  As a colleague tells me, they just wear more clothes during cold weather.
 So, it's not surprise, then, that hot pot is a popular meal during the winter.  Hot pots waste a lot of heat energy and probably release 5or 10 pounds of steam during a typical meal.  In a private apartment, a meal with a hot pot is almost as good as installing central heating for the evening.  Going to a hot pot restaurant is almost like taking a trip to a tropical island.  It is refuge from the cold.
 Beijing is famous for hotpot restaurants of the Northern style....of Mongolia and Manchuria.  Theresa and I went twice to DongLai Shun, a restaurant that advertised itself as Muslim hot pot.  The style of cooking comes from, what is now, the North of Tibet and the current provinces of XinJiang and Inner Mongolia.  In those areas, they eat a lot of sheep.  One reason for this is the large Muslim population and their disdain for pork.  Another reason comes from the sad fact that the harsh landscapes there can only support hardy animals like sheep and goats.

Most hot pot restaurants have a table for four to eight people with an electric burner in the center. The burner can be precisely controlled for the cooking in the communal hot pot. The hot pot at DongLai Shun utilizes antique technology.  Each hot pot is crafted from brass and glazed with ceramic.  At the center of the pot is a combustion chamber and a chimney, in which charcoal is burned.  Surrounding this chamber is an outer ring, filled with water.  As the charcoal burns in the central chamber, it boils the water in the surrounding ring.  The hot pot experience involves lots of thin sliced meats and vegetables.  You introduce these into the boiling waters to cook them.  Then you pull them out and dip them in sauces of peanut or soy sauce base. Then you eat them.  Then you put some more meat and vegetables in the pot.  Then you pull them out and eat them.  Repeat this procedure until all meat and vegetables are consumed.
 The meat for hot pot is sliced thin and provided on plates for the customer to consume at whatever pace is desired.  As you can see in the photos, meat has a healthy proportion of fat.  The boiling waters of the hot pot render most of these fats away, enriching the broth.  You drop the red and white slivers of meat into the boiling waters.  Then, a minute or two later, you fish them out as brown curlicues of tender, cooked meat.  You dip these pieces into your peanut sauce and then eat.  Then you drop some more pieces of meat in the boiling waters to repeat the process.
 At DongLai Shun, the advertised that their meat came not just from normal sheep, but rather came from Yak and Sheep of Tibet.  Happy Yak, raised on the plateaus of the Amdo regions of Tibet, where the air and land are pure.  I can believe this. I want to believe this.  I want to believe that the meat came from happy Tibetan yak playing in the sunshine  rather than some factory farmed sheep.   Who knows what is the truth is in China.  Better to believe what you want to believe,  rather than to let your fears run away with you.

Friday, December 14, 2012

To Beijing

Train Number G116
Theresa and I had been over a year-and-a-half in China, and still not gone to Beijing yet.  So, a few weeks ago we finally got motivated to make the trip.  We'd been purposely waiting until the late autumn, as that is supposed to be one of the best times for weather.  Since our time in Suzhou is drawing short, we needed to go this autumn, as we will not be here for the next one.
Comfortable First-Class Seating
The best way to get to Beijing from here has always been by train.  Until last year, that meant taking a soft sleeper berth in an express train for the overnight trip.  There are also hard sleepers and seats available at lower cost, for those travelling on a budget.  For those travelling with almost no budget, there are options for standing room and/or slower trains. (The express train, which stops only at major cities,  takes 10 to 14 hours.  The slow trains, which stop at every village along the way, take almost a full 24 hours.)

Air travel has always been an option, too, but you pay more for the ticket.   And the nearest airport is in Shanghai, which means you're waste at least 4 hours in travel to the airport and security checks and boarding and all that.  With the train you can pretty much walk right into the station, present you ticket to the checkers, and then go straight to the platform for boarding.  At the appointed time, the train arrives, it stops, you get on, and it leaves.  No waiting for a runway.  No air traffic control delays.

Last year, they opened the bullet train lines from Beijing to Shanghai.  Luckily, Suzhou is a big enough city to rate a major stop on the line.  The new trains take only 5 hours or so for the 750 mile trip; from the brand new Suzhou North Station (built just for the bullet trains) to the Beijing South Railway Terminal.  Air travel is not even worth consideration now.  Travel to Beijing by train has always been more convenient.  Now it is actually faster by rail than by air....if you measure from doorstep to doorstep.  A second class seat costs about $85, one-way, which is comparable to the cost of a soft sleeper on the old express trains.  Though reasonably low, that cost puts the bullet train out of reach for most of the poorer travellers.  They still make the trip for $15 or $20 on the older trains.

When they first opened the line, the bullet trains would reach a cruising speed of 350 km/hr...almost 220 mph.  That was back in the heady days when Chinese high-speed-rail seemed to be leapfrogging the Japanese Shinkansen to become the most advanced in the world.  Then came a series of scandals and a horrific train collision in ZheJiang province.  Public trust was reduced and, soon after, so was the speed of the trains. Normal cruising speed is now 300 km/hr (185 mph).  Between Suzhou and Beijing, there are a number of stops along the way which reduce the average speed to about 240 km/hr (150 mph).
Wheat Fields
Travelling by day on the bullet train, rather than overnight on the sleeper trains, affords a great opportunity to see the countryside.  The train route runs through the breadbasket of China; first through the Yangtze River flood plains and then into the vast North China Plain.   For most of the journey, the view is of wide, open spaces of farmland.  Every few minutes we'd pass through a small farming village. Every hour or so we'd stop at larger city.  Seeing so much open farmland, it is hard to picture that this train route passes through one of the most densely populated regions on the globe.

Wheat fields dominate the landscape once you pass north of Nanjing  We'd crossed over the famous rice-wheat dividing line.  Rice is the staple crop for Southern China. North of the Yangtze, the growing seasons become too short.  Wheat is the the staple food for the Northerners, and their cuisine is based upon breads and noodles and dumplings.  As we passed in early November, the fields were showing advanced sprouts of next year's crop.  The farther north we travelled, the sprouts became smaller and smaller until, finally, you could see only fields that were newly planted or waiting to be planted.
Corn Drying in the Open Air
We saw a lot of corn too.  Very little growing corn...but we saw a lot of newly harvested corn drying out in the sun.  Every flat, dry surface seemed to be covered with corn.  In the villages, the flat roofs of the houses were covered with drying corn.  Paved parking lots and the shoulders of paved roads were covered with drying corn.  In some places, it looked like they had closed entrance and exit ramps to the highways...and covered them with drying corn.  I'd never realized before, but China is second only to the U.S. in corn production.

Most of the corn, I suspect, is destined to feed the pigs.  Some also to feed the chickens and the ducks.  It will go to produce more pork snout and pig trotters and pork belly and chicken feet and duck tongues.  Corn must be critical to the food chain which supplies protein-based delicacies of Chinese cuisine.. 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Chili Cook-Off

Our Entry was "Tsing Tao Duck Chili"
 On October 20th, Zapata's TexMex Restaurant hosted their 4th annual chili cook-off.  We'd missed out on years 1 through 3 of the cook-off.  We almost missed out on year number 4, this year.  We only learned about it about ten days before-hand, during one of our regular Thursday night visits to Zapata's for Quiz Night.  They were encouraging folks to sign-up, as the number of participants this year was running a bit under what was seen in the past.

The cook-off is a chance for local folks to prepare their favorite chili recipe and compete against one another for the bragging rights of "best chili in Suzhou".   There aren't any rules....anything goes.  You can make your chili with beans or without; with noodles or without.  The winners are chosen  based on blind tasting by a panel of local judges.  These judges come from traditional chili hot spots such as Florida, Finland, and Australia.
Brett and Nathalie, our Australian neighbors from the 2nd floor.
 This year, there were eight teams.  All of the chilies were different, but also all were very good.   In the end, the competition was very tight.  There were only about 5 points separating last place from first.  Only a point or two between second place and first.  So the science of statistics would say that there was no meaningful difference between any of the entries.  Which is another way of saying that the only way to win would be through dumb luck.
This year's winners
Well, Theresa and I were lucky enough to take first place.  Our recipe was called "Tsing Tao Duck Chili".  This is because the recipe used duck meat and couple of bottles of Tsing Tao stout beer.  I would like to claim that the recipe is a brilliant fusion of traditional chili and carefully calculated oriental elements.   I'd like to claim that the decision to use duck breast and beer was a clever tactic.  That  it was insightful to use of strong-flavored meat to balance the strong flavors of chili seasoning.   And that the use of stout beer was a flash of creativity to add a depth of flavor that cannot be achieved with tomato sauce alone.

Our winning, though, was dumb luck. Our chili was good.  But so were all the other entries.  And there was no brilliance involved in the recipe.  We used duck breast because, here in China, it is much, much cheaper than imported Australian beef.  We used beer to supplement the tomato sauce because the the tomato sauce costs about $5 per can whereas the premium stout beer costs only about $1.50 per bottle.  It is absolutely true that the stout beer and the duck meat add an extra "depth of flavor" to our recipe.  But the fact that it tastes good is a merely an accident.  We chose the beer and the duck breast because they were cheaper than the alternative ingredients.

Regardless, in the end our batch of chili turned out to be decent enough.  The strange ingredients made for good conversation, too.  Here, for the sake of posterity, is our recipe.

Tsing Tao Duck Chili
12 boneless duck breasts, with skin

2 cans tomato sauce
2 bottles tsing tao stout beer
2 large onions, diced  (about 4 cups)
Assortment of peppers, diced (about 3 to 4 cups)
2 cans black beans, strained and rinsed.
4 to 5 cloves garlic, diced.
Chili powder
Ground pepper
Ground Sichuan pepper
1 lime
Cilantro (leaves picked and prepped for garnish)

Strip duck skin away from breasts.  Cut skin in to strips, about 1 cm by 3 cm.  Put in pan over medium low flame and render the duck fat until skin is dark brown and crispy.  Strain the melted duck fat into a glass container.  Heavily salt and pepper the cracklings and refrigerate for a snack later.
Dice the lean duck breast into cubes of 1cm or less.  Season with salt and pepper
Into a big chili-cooking pot:  Add some duck fat and fry a handful of duck meat over high heat until browned, then remove meat to a glass bowl.  Work in small batches and add more duck fat as needed.  The goal is to find that ideal quantity so that that meat browns and does not boil in own juices.
When all meat has been browned, sweat the onions and the peppers in pot until tender.  Then add back the meat.  Add diced garlic and a teaspoon of Sichuan pepper.  Cook for a couple of minutes until the garlic starts to give up its scent.  Then add the black beans and the two cans of tomato sauce.  Then add the beer, using it to rinse the remaining tomato sauce from the cans.
Heat to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer.  Add three tablespoons of chili powder, two tablespoons of cumin, and two teaspoons of ground black pepper. Simmer for an hour or more until liquids are reduced and consistency begins to change from “soupy”to the thicker chili consistency.
Add the juice of one lime and stir well. Taste and then adjust the seasonings with salt, pepper, Sichuan pepper, cumin, and chili powder. Continue to simmer for at least 15 minutes or more.  Add water if too thick.
Serve.  Garnish with fresh cilantro and/or sour cream.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Lingyin Temple and the Buddhas of Feilaifeng

One of the most famous spots along the West Lake, in Hangzhou, is the LingYin Temple and the adjacent FeiLaiFeng grottoes.  In this little travelogue, we'll start with the grottoes....since that is where our little EAS tour group started.

Just outside the temple there is a knob of limestone that rises several hundred feet over its surroundings. Neither height nor location makes it remarkable.  The West Lake is surrounded by hills, many of them much larger.  But this particular hill has hundreds of Buddhist images carved into its exposed limestone.  That is what makes it famous; and it is famous throughout all of China as one of the treasures of Hangzhou.
The rocky knob is called FeiLaiFeng.  The three Chinese characters in its name represent "to fly", "to come", and "rocky peak".  The travel websites translate this into English in different ways.  Some call it "the peak flow from afar" and some the "peak peak that flew hither" and some "the mountain come flying".  It seems that everything about China is ambiguous.

FeiLaiFeng is carved with over 300 images related to Buddhism.  Some are small.  Some big.  Some are crude.  Others approach the complexity of a Renaissance masterpiece.  The peak is riddled with caves and wormhole passages.  Inside, in near total darkness, there are also carvings.
The stone carvings on FeiLaiFeng date back to 1100 years ago.  Though the rock was there before the founding of temple, the carving of the rock came several hundred years after.  The style, I am told, is true to the origins of Buddhism in India and Tibet.  In fact, the local legends all say that entire rocky knob was originally located in India but flew itself to Hangzhou.  (Which explains why it is called "the mountain come flying".)  The artwork certainly looks to me like it could be Indian.  The tour guide assured us, though, that it is classically Chinese.
A friend from India told me that it is easy to distinguish between Indian and Chinese religious art.  In India, he said, the Buddhas all have Indian faces.  In China, they all have Chinese faces.  Below the neck, they are pretty much indistinguishable.  But the face will always give it away.

Just past the Buddhas of FeiLaiFeng is the LingYin Temple.  This temple is easily the largest temple complex that we've seen in China.  The main buildings are positioned on a line the runs up the side of a hill.  Each has an entry in a front and an exit in the back leading to a courtyard and then the entry of the next.  As you move from building to building you climb further up the hill.  It's similar, in that way, to some of the temples we saw in Kyoto, Japan.
These buildings have names such as Hall of the Heavenly King, Hall from the Fantastic Hero, Hall of the Buddha of Medicine, and Grand Hall of the Great Sage.  Each houses a major shrine in the form of a great statue at its center.  On the side walls are tens, if not hundreds, of smaller statues and shrines. 

The ritual for the observant usually starts outside, in the front of the temple, with the burning of paper offerings, candles, and incense sticks (known as joss sticks).  The paper offerings usually go straight into a cauldron.  The candles and joss sticks are usually held in front of the body in raised, clasped hands as the initial prayers are made.  Then they are placed into a rack of some type or into the cauldron where they continue to smoulder for long after.
The next step is to enter through the front door of the hall and to kowtow in front of the main shrine.  (English is full or words "borrowed" from other languages.  Kowtow is one of the very few words that English has borrowed from Chinese.)  They kneel upon mats and perform three of these prostrations.  Then they continue to pray or they move on surrounding walls to make appeals to the Bodhisattvas and lesser beings.  My understanding is that when Buddhists pray, they are normally asking for assistance with something.   Each of these deities, I am told, has an area of specialization.  Prayers and offerings are directed at specific shrines based on this.
Health, Wealth, and Long Life.  These are the top three themes for which people are praying.  Wealth for the young and/or poor.  Health for the sick.  Long life for the old.   One can pray for these things to be granted to oneself, or pray for them to be granted to a relative or friend.  Folks pray for other things, too;  love, marriage, children, revenge, etc...  I'd guess that each has a special patron.
The photo above shows the monks of the temple monastery.  Like monks of any religion, these folks spend a lot of time in prayer and study of their own choosing.   In this case, they have been engaged by a patron to offer additional prayers to help the patron's cause.  The ritual was much more elaborate and coordinated than normal prayers.  But beyond that, I couldn't tell what was actually going on.  
Our tour guide assured us that there was some kind of fee for the monks' assistance.  Though they live a life of poverty and denial, they still have to put food in their bellies and keep the temple in good repair.  All organized religions face the same challenges, I suppose.
In the photo of our group above, at center, is an elderly pilgrim come from Tibet.  Some folks in our group struck up a conversation with her and her family.  She stood out from the crowd because of her costume, which is in the Tibetan tradition.  Tibet was, and still is, one of the centers of Buddhist culture.  The Lingyin temple is of a type of Buddhism which seems to have a Tibetan pedigree.  The power of Lingyin temple to draw pilgrims from afar is an example of its fame and reputation.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Dragon Well Tea

Tea Bushes
There's an old idiom about "all the tea in China".  I'd always heard it, but never understood until coming here.  All the tea in China would be a LOT of tea.  This is a country of 1.3 billion people and virtually all of them drink tea all day long.  Every bus driver and taxi driver will have a thermos of tea wedged under the seat.  Migrant workers go to work carrying their tool kits in one hand and their tea containers in the other.   The demand for tea is huge. 

One of the most famous, if not the most famous, teas in China comes Hangzhou.....from the hills surrounding the West Lake.  LongJingCha, it is called. It is a green tea.  Translated, it is known as Dragon Well tea to English speakers.  In the old days, the best of this tea was reserved for the emperors.  Today, much of the high quality stuff is still reserved for government use.  Good quality LongJing tea can be expensive. The highest quality can be obscenely expensive.  For that reason, Dragon Well Tea is also one of the most counterfeited items in the country.
Gathering Tea Leaves
Our EAS tour group made a stop at one of Hangzhou's tea plantations.  It seemed a bit of a tourist trap.  At the foot of the hills there was space for bus parking.  Our tour group trekked to  the top of the hill, where there was a cluster of buildings.  There we were given some baskets and assigned a guide to take us out into the bushes to pick tea. 
More gathering of tea leaves
Now, a tea bush may have a lot of leaves on it, but very few of them are suitable for picking.  Only the smallest, newest leaves emerging from the tip of branch are suitable.  Our guide taught us how to recognize these. We were then challenged to pick enough tea to cover the bottom of a basket.  Not to fill the basket... just to cover the bottom. It took our group about a half hour of cooperative picking to accomplish.  I think we could have picked all day and not filled a basket.
The secret of good green tea, we learned, is in the roasting of the leaves.   The roasting of the leaves assures quick drying, but more importantly it denatures the natural enzymes in the leaves.  If you just pick the leaves and allow them to dry in the air, then the colors will darken and the flavor will become less flowery and more earthy.  This is how the dark teas (like the stuff in the tea bag) are made.  If you roast the fresh picked leaves quickly and carefully, then it stops the oxidation processes dead in their tracks.  The leaves dry, but they retain their green color and their herb-like scents.
Pan roasting the leaves - the essential step
They call it pan roasting, but it more like a saute.  First a large steel pan is oiled and then heated over an open flame.  Once the temperature is just right, then the tea leaves are added.  They must be kept moving, constantly, so as not to burn them.  In the old days, it was all done by hand.  These days, there is more automation and mass production creeping into the process.  But the good teas are still hand roasted in a process controlled feel and smell.  It takes a skilled worker to bring out the highest quality product.  The photo above shows our guide in the process or roasting the leaves which we picked.

So, at first this whole tea plantation thing seemed a bit touristy and hokey.  In time, though, it was explained that this really WAS a working tea plantation, and not some Disneyland stagecraft.  The guides and the pan roasters really WERE tea growers and not people play acting the role.  The land, like all the land in China, is owned by the government.  The government grants the use of the land to the farmer.  It's like sharecropping.  Sharecropping has never been a particularly lucrative occupation.  

This particular farm family makes most of their income by producing tea.  The whole tourist thing is just a way to bring in a little cash on the side.  It also gives them a chance to sell their product directly to the consumer.  What farmer wouldn't want to cut out the middlemen?  And what Chinese consumer wouldn't want to avoid counterfeiters by buying direct from the farm?  They sold three grades of tea.  The best grade went for about $50 per 100 grams, if I remember correctly.  By that math, the ten pound sack pictured below is worth a fair bit of money.
Finished product.
Since Suzhou and Hangzhou are rivals in most everything, it's appropriate that Suzhou also has a famous green tea that rivals the Dragon Well Tea of Hangzhou.  Suzhou's tea is called BiLuoChunCha.  In English, it is known as Green Snail Spring Tea.  BiLuoChun is grown in the hills of DongShan, on the eastern shores of Lake Tai.  The "snail" in the name is because the tea leaves become corkscrew shaped as they shell of a snail or a nautilus.  (Dragon Well tea leaves remain flat.) 

The local people are passionate about their tea.  As passionate as the French are about their wines.  Some of my colleagues swear that Hangzhou's LongJing tea is the best.  Others swear by Suzhou's BiLuoChun.  It's like Bordeaux or Burgundy.  Democrat or Republican.  White Sox or Cubs.  You develop an allegiance for one or the other and that allegiance lasts for your entire life. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

上有天堂, 下有苏杭

One of many bridges at West Lake (XiHu)
 Ok... it is a bit pretentious to go with an all-Chinese-character title for this post.  I don't speak the local language, and much less understand the complex characters used for writing.  This couplet, though, is famous here in China.  (Or at least it's purported by the local tourism bureaus to be famous.)  It's a bit of poetry.  Here's how you say it:
shàng yǒu tiān táng
xià yǒu sū háng
Like all Chinese poetry, there are multiple ways to interpret.  Here is one:
There is Heaven above. 
There are Suzhou and Hangzhou below.
Right now, we live in Suzhou.  In October, Theresa and I took a trip to Hangzhou with the EAS group.  (EAS is the Expats Association of Suzhou.  We've taken trips with them before, and they are always excellent.)   About 30-plus-or-minus folks went on this two day trip to see the other side of paradise.
A lotus pond on West Lake
To understand the Chinese fascination with Suzhou and Hangzhou, you first have to understand the love the Chinese have for their classical gardens.  The classical Chinese garden is an orchestrated balance of water and plants and stones and structures....too perfect for nature but painstakingly built to look perfectly natural.  The Chinese classical garden is Feng Shui and poetry and painting and Confucian philosophy mixed all together into one intoxicating experience.   The Chinese classical garden is also the embodiment of opulence; a pleasure that could only be afforded by the most filthy of the filthy rich.  The classical Chinese garden is both divine and carnal.  It's hidden spaces encourage both meditation and seduction.  It appeals to the Saturday night sinner and the Sunday morning saint.
A view from the lake on a stormy day
 Suzhou is well-known and much respected by the Chinese tourists for the many classical gardens within the city.  There are a couple of dozen, if not more.  You normally find a garden behind the walls of an old, family estate.  These gardens were originally private....intended for the enjoyment of a wealthy family and the guests invited to come into their compound.  Now the gardens are open to all who are willing to pay the admission fee.

Suzhou is respected by the Chinese.  Hangzhou is beloved.

Hangzhou is beloved because the entire city is as one, big, classical Chinese garden. XiHu, or the West Lake, is the water element of the garden.  Surrounding XiHu are the knobby mountains of ZheJiang province. They serve as the stone.  The remaining classical elements - the plants and structures - abound on the shores of XiHu.  You can walk for miles along the shores of XiHu and enjoy the site of pagodas and trees reflecting in the waters. In Hangzhou, nothing is hidden behind walls.   In Hangzhou, everyplace is within the garden.
Wind surfers in foreground.  Leifeng Pagoda in background.
 The city of Hangzhou is only about a two hour drive, by car or bus, from Suzhou.  I'd been there once before on business.  Theresa had never been.  So this was a first chance for both of us to see the city as tourists.

Hangzhou is also only about two hours away from Shanghai.  This is both a boon and a curse.  For the people of Shanghai, it is a boon to have a nearby place where they can escape the crowded, concrete sterility of their all-too-modern city.  For Hangzhou, though, it is a curse to have living nearby 20 million people who, on any given week-end, might all decide to drop in for a quick dose of "back-to-nature".  The week-end that we visited, the traffic around XiHu was horrific.
The North-East shore.  No Trees or hills.  Mostly apartments to house the six million residents.
 Suzhou and Hangzhou are approximately the same size.  Both have a population of around 6 to 7 million.  (add in a few million more migrant workers).  In Hangzhou, most of the citizens are concentrated in urban areas on Eastern shores of West Lake and they spill out behind that further East and North.  The North, West, and South shores of the lake are mostly green spaces.  These are criss-crossed with paths that lead to countless scenic spots .  Countless.  Places such as "melting snow at broken bridge" and "three pools mirroring the moon".  You could spend days exploring the paths and shores around the lake.
Hangzhou is good Fengshui
The scenic views of Hangzhou are not just recently famous.  They have been famous for hundreds of years.  So much so that the emperors in Beijing spent large sums to replicate the views of XiHu within the grounds of their summer palace.
Scenes through a circular window
 There is more to Hangzhou than just the West Lake.  The hills to the west of the lake are famous for the green tea that is grown there. (More on that later.)  To the North is the XiXi Wetlands park, where our EAS trip spent a good deal of time.  The wetlands area is a lot like the bayous of Louisiana.  It marshy and criss-crossed by a tangle of small streams.  In the old days, the folks there fished and farmed and mainly kept to themselves.  During the difficult years of the 1950s and 1960s, the area became a natural spot for a re-education camps....a place to send the political dissenters from large cities like Shanghai and Beijing.  A city-slicker trying to run-away from camp would be just as likely to drown in the marshes as escape.  (Ironic, that this supposed place of "heaven on earth" should serve as a swampland-prison.)
Bridges and Lilly Pads
That was thirty years ago.  The XiXi wetlands are now a place for tourists to take boat trips and to see the persimmon trees and the water-birds and the reconstructed farm houses.  The iron hand of central-control has given way to the soft hand of market-capitalism.  Re-education has become recreation.  I wonder how many former prisoners come to visit and relive the good-old-days in the camps.  Not many, I guess.

Ok, can't think of a good ending.  That's partly because we have a few more stories to tell.  Watch for a couple of more postings related to our Hangzhou trip. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.  It's not much of a holiday here in China.  Many of the local folks are aware of this American tradition.  Gan En Jie, they call it.  If you plug the Chinese characters into a translation website, these characters 感恩节 translate roughly into "sense of kindness holiday".  I think that is nice.
For our Thanksgiving dinner, we went to Zapata's, where they put out a spread that would bring a tear to any American's eye.  Turkey (both roasted and smoked), potatoes, stuffing, green bean casserole, brussel sprouts, and salad.  Follow that with dessert of pumpkin and/or pecan pie.  Not as good as grandma's, but a darned fine substitute if you're 8000 miles away from home.

By the way, from my unscientific sampling I would have to conclude that very few Chinese people have ever eaten turkey.  And those that have eaten, for the most part, don't like it.  "Like eating cardboard" is how one person described it.  So it goes.  The sociologists call this "cultural distance".  We have our turkey.  They have their duck.

"Huo Ji" is what they call the turkey here.  Literally translated, this means "fire chicken".  Lord only knows where this comes from. 

Still though, it is amazing that almost all the Chinese I know are aware of our holiday of Thanksgiving and our tradition of eating turkey.  In the reverse, I would guess that far fewer Americans are aware of the mid-autumn festival and fewer still aware of the tradition of eating moon cakes.  For that matter, at lunch today a colleague explained to me the traditions of the Spring Festival.  (Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, has a lot in common with our Thanksgiving in that it is a time for family get-togethers and huge meals. No football on TV here, though.)  Anyway, the tradition in the hometown of my colleague is to cook a large fish - head and tail still attached - for the family dinner on New Year's Eve.  But no one is allowed to eat the fish.  It has to stay on the table untouched.  (If you sneak a bite, then it is bad luck for the family for the whole year.).  The fish cannot be eaten until the new year comes.  So it is carefully set aside and then served again for consumption the next day.  It seems strange to me, but I guess it is no stranger than fighting over a turkey's wishbone.

Though not Thanksgiving, today here is a bit of an auspicious day.  In the Shanghai Daily it tells us that:
Today is xiaoxue, or light snow, on the Chinese lunar calendar. That marks the time when many traditional families in China start to make preserved ham and pork sausage as the weather should be cold and dry.
Pig or turkey notwithstanding, it is the time of year to celebrate the bounty of the harvest and to fill one's belly in preparation for the hard days of the coming winter.  Happy Thanksgiving to all.  Happy XiaoXueJie as well.  Count your blessings, and know that we certainly count you amongst ours.