Welcome to my story! Read, share, and enjoy my musings!

11 May 2012

The Noodle Shop Refuge

呼和浩特火车站 , 内蒙古  Hohhot Train Station, Inner Mongolia

The train arrives early in the morning. Seven a.m. On the platform I am shocked by the frigid pre-dawn air. My nostril hairs coalesce and freeze to the inner walls of my nose. Breath clouds condense into ice crystals and flutter to the pavement as new-fallen snow.

Out of the station, I seek breakfast. I am hungry and need heat. My stacks of warm layers are failing me. Woolen high socks, long underwear tops and bottoms, thick pants, fleece, gloves, hat, scarf, long wool coat. My fingers and toes are fast transforming into blocks of wood. The cold doesn't notice that I want it to stay out.

Bundled.
I sidle into an alley, following a gaggle of blue-green uniformed school children. Urban survival tactics. Follow the kids to food. The hub is a Hui noodle place, similar to the kind we have in Yinchuan, with children swarming in and out of it. The warmth and bustling atmosphere sucks me in and sits me down. Cliques of kids gather round each low table, gabbing, scarfing breakfast, copying homework. The place is buzzing like a hip bar at midnight, but with a youthful spark that adults typically bury sometime in their teens.

One boy laughs and pokes his chubby friend in the chest. Not to take such an assault lightly, the second boy pushes his round belly forward and bounces the poker out of the circle of children. Roars of laughter. A light-hearted scuffle ensues. Another boy with glasses and a very serious look on his face swats the ruffians away while he feverishly tries to copy a friend's homework before class begins. He's running out of time. My egg noodle soup arrives.

School time approaches and the crowd thins. Kids grab books and scramble out into the icebox. None are wearing warm hats or gloves. Just their warm-ups and yellow baseball hat, standard school uniform. I'm not too surprised, having seen the industrial thickness long johns all Chinese own and wear under their clothes. And they don't stop at one pair: more layers of underwear equals more warmth. It's a simple formula.

"So remember, we're parked right next to the golden elephant with the monkey and bird on its back."
The hearty soup disappears fast from my bowl. Fried egg, noodles, suantai, the crunchy, tasty green stem that grows off the top of a garlic bulb, and spicy broth. Warming from the inside out. Reluctant to exit this cocoon of comfort, I pull out a book and get cozy on the dented metal stool. Clangs emanate from the kitchen. Steam clouds the glass doors and condensation drips down the mirrors lining both walls of the narrow shop. There is a small break in one of the mirrors where a tattered menu with the list of noddle dishes hangs.

The famed Wutasi, Five Pagoda Temple, at nightfall.
I've learned over time that, unlike the US, when seeking out a restaurant of high quality in China you must find the dingiest joint possible. The one with the busted door, white tile walls, tiny, uncomfortable seats, and god-awful lighting is bound to have the finest cuisine. Good service doesn't always come with great food, but you'll find that a smile goes a long way with any disgruntled fuwuyuan, waiter or waitress. Most are pretty excited to have a foreigner in their midst.This noodle shop has highly satisfactory decor, as decor goes. And fine service with a grin.

Fully warmed and satiated, I decide to brave the elements once more. I've got places to get to. The laoban, proprietor of said establishment, informs me of how to get to the Agricultural University by bus. I am taking an exam there in two days and seek to create a hassle free test day by locating the place first thing. The magnetic pull of the warm, delicious refuge is difficult to overcome, but I finally break free of its spell and march into the cold.

04 January 2012

2012: The Year to Follow Your Dreams

A few days before the New Year I was talking with my sister, Kate, when a realization dawned on me. Over about a year's worth of conversations I had noted that more often than not she was lacking her usual luster, like someone had turned the volume down in her life. Absent was the buoyant, airy, sparkling energy I know is native within her. We explored some possible origins of these sentiments and unearthed what seemed like a likely cause: not following her dream.

My mom and Kate, two of the prettiest ladies I know.
Kate is living in New York City, an infamously rough place to reside, survive, and thrive in, and it has been eating at her. But she is there for a reason. New York is one of two American foci of the acting universe, a center-point that the film and theater world revolves around. To be in New York is to be in the thick of it, a cultural capital of the art and the craft. And Kate wants to act. That is her dream.

But there has been a disconnect. Kate is in the right place and she's thinking about acting, but not actualizing her potential. She hasn't actively been seeking, pushing towards, discovering her life as an actress. And this has been the cause of her unhappiness. Kate has identified her dream, she knows it, it resides in her heart. But instead of swimming all out toward that goal, digging into her reserves with every stroke, she has just been treading water.

A breaching humpback in Icy Strait, Alaska. Photo by my mom.
And how many of us are doing that right now? Treading water? Getting exhausted there in the open ocean while our unexplored island is just on the horizon? How many of us have tasted inspiration, been invigorated by an activity, or been driven toward an unlikely goal, only to then ignore those impulses, just sweep them under the carpet like so many dust bunnies? Dreaming is impractical (so we are instructed by our culture), it goes against productivity, economic growth, and security. It's risky to dream, and risk is scary.

A stunning fall day in the Elk Mountains, Colorado.
But who cares? Why live according to a boring formula that does not suit us? Why plod along a paved super highway with reinforced guardrails penning us in, the black asphalt stretching on forever in a long line of cars? Why live a mundane life?

Equally as important as acknowledging our dreams is acting on them. It takes hard work to get anywhere. If you want to be good at something, do it. Master it. Make it a focus of your life. When we are working hard, focusing with a clear mind on our task, the universe then conspires in our favor and our life begins to drip with serendipity.

This kind of action, this sort of embracing, is not easy. It often involves sacrifice. Paring down your life so you can focus on your dream. Dropping excess baggage can be psychologically demanding when we've been holding onto it with a white-knuckled death grip for years. Radical lifestyle changes or periods of uncertainty can set us free, but it is frightening to take these kinds of risks.

The lovely Erin Fleming framing Wilson's Arch, Utah.
Seeing as 2012 is alternatively going to be the end of the world or the beginning of a global spiritual transformation, why not end our habitual ignoring of what matters most? Let us embrace our dreams, dare to follow our hearts, and live our lives, instead of waiting for them to live us. The only moment to enact change is now. And since we all could die tomorrow (whether from global apocalyptic catastrophe or a car wreck), now seems like a pretty good time to begin to live.

Kate and I inspired each other. We volleyed ideas and they gained weight with each transfer. Let's stop wondering how to live a happy life and instead just do it. We have both clearly identified a craft we want to pursue, to fully embrace and give it a chance. See if it fits. Then if it doesn't, we can happily discard it and move on, knowing that we gave it a go. Up until now we have been floating, not entirely idle, but also not emphatically driving toward our goals. I want to write. She wants to act. Now we shall turn want into action.

With one life to live, who can afford to wait? Let us launch headfirst into 2012, The Year to Follow Your Dreams, and encourage ourselves and those around us to shed our unnecessary burdens and discover our potential for happiness and fulfillment. To try what we've always wanted to try. To follow our hearts. To ditch the asphalt and walk down the yellow brick road instead.

video

(Just another day on the job. Laurelyn and I enjoying the wonders of Green Lakes Valley, Colorado. Summer 2010.)

30 December 2011

To Inner Mongolia

银川 Yinchuan

December

Cold water slaps the tiles at my feet. I find the soap and washcloth by the streetlamp light filtering in through my bathroom window. I expect the slightly chilled winter-time shower to be uncomfortable at best, but instead find it refreshing. I rinse and cut the water.

Lathering up my face, I wonder how effective my shave will be without any light. My headlamp is dead. Been dead for weeks. Dripping and naked, I scurry about the dark apartment until I ferret out a lighter with a small LED built in the backside and flick the switch. Ducking back into the bathroom I deem the pathetic beam grossly ineffective. Then a light goes off in my head (but not in my house). One more scramble and return and I have a beautiful orange glow radiating out from a candle stuck into a jelly lid. I happily set razor to skin and find the light source to be far superior to my powerless ceiling-mounted heat lamps. The mobile candle-stick can be variously positioned along my sink-top, for an unprecedented shadowless neck shaving experience. I am quite pleased.

Beita, North Tower, Yinchuan.
In two hours I am catching a train out of Yinchuan bound for Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. During my final stages of packing and preparation, my pre-paid electricity ran out and *poof* lights out. I foolishly hadn't recharged my electricity card (I hear Sabrina laughing in my head, "You are such a 猪头, zhutou! [pighead]) and had no time to go out and take care of it now. Ergo, cold shower and shave by candlelight.

A brief errand to school, two buses to the new city, and I meet Sabrina in front of the train station. "You know there is a new train station opening soon?" she tells me. I had heard something like that, and ask her where. "Just the next street over," she points. "Right next to this one."

Sabrina is seeing me off because all the tickets are sold out. She tried to get a ticket for me a week back since she lives much closer to the station than I, with no luck. So she rang her friend that works for the railroad, and told me he would be able to finagle a spot for me on the train, I just needed to be there. Sabrina has the 关系, the guanxi, the connection to the goods.

An Yinchuan sunset.
Over peanuts she tells me her friend isn't working tonight, but her friend's friend is going to help us out. She has his name. I am relatively unconcerned. If I can get on the train I'll find somewhere to pass the ten hours to Hohhot.

The electronic board signals that the train is arriving. We queue up and watch with amusement as my fellow passengers sprint to the platform to board. It doesn't seem that essential to take off at race pace to get on the train, but seeing as I still don't have a ticket we decide to compromise and approach at a brisk jog.

Sabrina spots the first available conductor and asks for her friend's friend. He points us further down the line of cars. We proceed. She asks the next conductor and he relays the news that her friend's friend is not working tonight. Sabrina politely explains my predicament. The railway man, though rushed and hastily dispatching a swarm of other passengers and their questions, tells us to step on the train and wait for him in the dining car. He'll be by later. Sabrina has the foresight to check his name tag before we board. 张建华, Zhang Jianhua.

在火车上 On the train

The dining car is well lit and a few of the kitchen and rail staff are seated within. Some are chatting, others are punching numbers and copying information into log books. I sit in an empty booth. Sabrina sits across the aisle, nervously checking the time. Departure time is 9:13 pm. We have eleven minutes.

Almost immediately a very large, box shaped man wearing white cooking clothes takes a fancy to me. The female employees surrounding him giggle as he pokes and prods me with inquiries and meaty gesticulations.

"Where are you from?"
"America."
"Oh! America! Excellent! You speak Chinese very well!" He thrusts a leg-sized forearm up into the air to demonstrate the level of excellence.
"No, no. Not very well."
"What do you think of China? Good or bad?"
"Extremely good."
"Yes, China is good." His square face and squinty eyes nod approval. "Are you a student?"
"No, I'm a teacher."
"How much do you make a month?" Sabrina tries to interject out of politeness, but it is typically the third question I am asked by everyone I meet, so I am used to it.
"Six thousand yuan a month."
"Not enough. Not enough." A deep frown creases his lined face and he shakes his head. "You're a foreigner, you should be making more."
"No I think it's enough."
"Not enough!" he barks. "How old are you?"
"Twenty-eight."
"Are you married?"
"No, but I have a girlfriend in America."
"You should get a Chinese girlfriend."
"No, no..." I begin to reply but he stops me short.
"Yes, Chinese girls are very gentle. Extremely gentle. Much more gentle than American girls."
"How do you know that?" A bit of incredulity creeps into my voice.
He slams his beef-fist onto the table for effect. I feel the aftershock several booths away. "Much more gentle!" Case closed.
After the S-waves have subsided, I add, "American girls are gentle too." Wenrou, loosely translated as gentle, is one of the highest virtues for a traditional Chinese woman to have. He looks skeptical.
"Are you used to Chinese food?"
"I am. I like it."
"How about mutton?" The region is known for its mutton.
"I don't eat meat."
"You don't eat meat!? Why not?" he demands.
"I'm Buddhist."
Vegetables.

My forthcoming friend contemplates this for a moment then heaves his refrigerator of a frame out of his booth and crashes it into mine. He grips one of my hands that had been resting on the table and turns it over. He pets my soft palm with his coarse meat patty. Releasing me, he cocks his arm up, elbow on the table, and indicates he wants to arm wrestle.

"You eat vegetables. I eat meat."
I'm not sure how this plays into his proposition for a competition.
"Come on. I'm fifty-nine. You're twenty-eight. I eat meat. You're a vegetarian. Let's go."
"You're about the same age as my mom," I tell him. This seems to rouse his enthusiasm.

Meat. (photo from here.)
We clasp hands. He says something I assume regards the rules, so I nod. We begin. After a tense start, he raises an eyebrow and points to my other hand on the table, indicating I can't apply counter-pressure with that one. He clearly has his game face on. I maintain a reasonable defensive position for a while but it's clear from the beginning I don't have a chance. I stick it out for a few moments longer then fold. My large companion is pleased.

"It's because I eat meat and you eat vegetables," he adds his conclusive condolences. "You should eat meat." He hefts the refrigerator once more and throws it down in his original location, filling the booth with his mass.

During our match, Sabrina had walked over to the door, spoken briefly with a conductor, and returned. Now she sits across from me, looking more nervous and eyeing her phone every two seconds. We have five minutes. Conductor Zhang still hasn't shown and we are approaching departure time.

The white-garmented carnivore pulls a victory cigarette from a crumpled pack and offers me one.
"I don't smoke."
"Ah!" He exclaims approvingly. This particular abnegation passes inspection. "Chinese people. We all smoke." He lights up.

All of a sudden the station scenery begins to creep alongside us, pillars becoming mobile, platform a flowing river of cement. "Oh no!" Sabrina cries and runs to the door. She implores briefly with the doorwoman to let her off, but to no avail. The train left three minutes early. Sabrina's shoulders drop and she drags her feet back to me. "Oh shit." Her forehead is creased with worry, she nervously fingers her phone.

Sabrina reenacts her on-train frustration. Photo by Chris.

With various queries directed throughout the dining car Sabrina gathers that she can get off at Shizuishan, half an hour away, wait an hour at the station and catch an Yinchuan-bound train home. She'll get to her apartment around one am. I feel like an ass since she is here to send me off, to do me a favor. The fridge chef has continued his questioning throughout the ordeal, but I have turned my attention towards Sabrina, and the inquisition gradually loses momentum.

The train workers disband and go about their duties. We sit quietly for a few minutes. I try to reassure Sabrina. Conductor Zhang approaches us down the aisle and is shocked to see Sabrina there. She explains what happened, and he offers what he knows. He arranges a ticket for me. We thank him and make our way back to car 14.

We arrive and are escorted into the employees' car, which is quiet and dark. I am surprised and delighted. I deposit my belongings on my bunk, fold down the stow-away seat in the aisle, and plop down next to Sabrina. We chat in hushed voices until her stop arrives. We hug and say goodbye.

Uniformed and plainclothed workers file past me in both directions. I swing my legs back and forth to make room for their passing, smiling at their mildly shocked faces. I hear mutterings of laowai, and waiguoren, both words for "foreigner" in Chinese. One woman stops and asks where I'm from, and is quite taken aback when I answer her and continue the conversation. After our chat concludes, I hear the mutterings change to, "Wow, this foreigner can speak Chinese." I smile. I feel welcomed and privileged to be traveling in the VIP car.

The hard sleeper cars have three-walled, open cabins with six bunks per cabin, three lining each wall. A low bunk near the floor, a mid-bunk, and I high bunk squished up against the ceiling. I had slept in a high bunk once before and found it claustrophobic. The low bunks turned into communal sitting areas until the lights were extinguished. So I opted for the middle bunk for a bit more privacy without sacrificing breathing room.
Looking out of the West Tower, Baisi Kou, near Yinchuan.

Fortunately, the beds are long enough for my greater-than-the-average-Chinese height. Nice and firm, they are equipped with a thin pad, blanket and sand-bag pillow, bound in by a railing so itinerant sleepers don't end up assaulting their down-bunk neighbors. I strip off my multiple warm layers and settle in to sleep amidst the rocking of the train.

What seems like moments later, I am torn from sleep, the air rent by what sounds like a Paul Bunyan-sized weed whacker. The kind with the raspy, scathing pull-cord that never seems to get the motor started. Over and over the pull-cord saws through the cabin, through my ear drums, through my groggy brain. What the hell is that?

I roll over and gaze down through my sleep cloud upon a whale of a man, pasty white flesh flowing out of his bunk in all directions. His face is smeared along the rear wall and his limbs are twisted and contorted in a variety of extremely uncomfortable looking angles to fit in the narrow space. And I thought my bunk was tight. It's warm on the train and the Chinese Michelin Man has stripped down to his tight, white briefs, bulging at maximum capacity and threatening to burst and spray underwear shrapnel into oblivious victims' cubbies.

The swollen girth of my cabin-mate endows him with unusually voluminous snoring capacity. The titanic pull-cord tears through the otherwise still night air once more. I can't tell if it's the locomotion or the resonation that's vibrating the walls around me. With each heave of the cord, the metal, glass and plastic surfaces enveloping me shudder violently. I ponder if the structural integrity of the car will be compromised by this incredible force, shearing the protective shell in twain and sending us soaring into the night.

He tosses and the sawing abates. His nasal cavity must have cleared out the phlegmatic pileup that was preventing passage of oxygen. I too toss and bury my head in my pillow. Nodding off in the rediscovered tranquility, I wonder how Sabrina is doing. My rumination is shattered by renewed eruptions from the human volcano, shards of thought raining out of my middle bunk. I bury my head deeper and dream of easy breathing.

27 December 2011

Luang Prabang

Pink blossoms and bean pods hang from the leafless tree at the top of the hill. The golden pagoda that caught my eye from across the city sits majestically at the apex. Birds flit by in the afternoon air but I miss their tweets, drowned out by my heavy breathing. I turn over the cranks one more time on my faithful squeaky steed, before huffing to a stop, sweating everywhere. I deploy the questionable kickstand and await Erin's arrival, cooling off in the light breeze.

The multi-storied structure is captivating and unique. A stroll around the octagonal exterior reveals delicate flowers, relief carvings on doors and awnings, and expansive views of Luang Prabang. Upon entering, I am greeted by two nuns dressed in plain robes. They smile and welcome me in, asking that I write my name in their log book. I deposit my belongings along the inner wall and gaze at the paintings surrounding me.

The walls are covered with depictions of the realms of existence. Fiery hells, blank, barren expanses filled with wandering ghosts, our plane fraught with war, conflict, and starvation, limbo states, heavenly kingdoms. I walk slowly and deliberately, utilizing the technique Phra Sinlapachai taught outside of Chiang Mai: Heel up. Lifting. Moving. Lowering. Touching. Pressing. Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot. Cognizant of each footfall and the relative positioning of my body.

Mindful steps guide me throughout the sacred space. I make my way through the lowest tier, taking in the rich displays of various realities, borne of one's karmic action forever propelling the spirit into future rebirths. I ascend to the second tier and find extensive murals portraying Buddha's life and travails on every vertical surface. Colorful displays of compassion and hardship, birth, life, and death; of pilgrims paying respects, travels and discourses. The reverence is palpable.

The older of the two nuns approaches me from behind as I am walking. She walks up and with kind disposition offers me a purple, braided bracelet. I present my left wrist and she obliges. Once the knot is firmly affixed, she gestures for a donation, and offering for her efforts. I immediately feel used, cheated of something greater. I begrudgingly hand over some money and she bows and hobbles back downstairs. I can't overcome this feeling of debasement, of a higher ideal being abused and sullied. Is it ever possible to separate the spiritual from the monetary, the mundane? I continue my walking meditation and do my best to observe my conflicted feelings.

A narrow stairwell leads up to progressively smaller chambers. The roof slants inward over my head and the aqua blue hue of the room creates an atmosphere of oceanic bubble essence. The scenes here are fewer in number and more abstract, amalgamations of geometric shapes and Buddhist symbols. The quiet is almost oppressive. Small portholes allow narrow beams of light passage inward, illuminating select spheres of artwork.

A final spiral staircase bears me skyward, into the last and smallest of the four levels. An alcove with an altar is tucked into the top spire of the temple structure. Several Buddha figures sit atop the altar in their lonely abode, with offerings scattered about the standing and seated forms. Tiny slits in the walls allow spare glimpses of the world outside. The complex panoramas from below are absent, the walls mostly void of decoration.

The space compels me. I hum, adjusting the bass in my voice until I find a resonating range that shakes the molecules all around me. I stop and absorb the fading vibrations. I repeat the exercise, approaching greater decibels each time, a smile growing on my face, my cells vibrating in unity with the air enclosing me. Fingering the bracelet on my wrist, I let go of the anger and frustration I felt. Although initially attempted to throw away this representation of the fouling of the sacred, I decide instead to wear it. Let it remind me to not be blinded by expectations. To be fluid in accepting when appearances and assumptions do not match reality. To not become too attached to this idea of "spirituality" and what that should mean, how others should act within my own framework of what is good and right.

I release the soft threads from between my fingertips and once more lose myself in universal vibrations.

***

It was the pizza. That cheesy, oily deliciousness smothered in greens, was the culprit. It had been so good. So satisfying. Gratifying in all its pizza-glory. Who would have thought the only Western food I've eaten in weeks would make me sick?

I lean over the toilet and empty my stomach once more. Erin is even worse off. I've been able to pull my sorry carcass out of bed and move about the bungalow, but she is fully bedridden. Moaning accompanies moving from within a tangle of sheets. I do my best to share some sympathy with her sad state. My last stomach illness had afflicted me in southern Thailand, keeping me from climbing, but this is way worse. Standing is challenging. Guts rebelling against verticality and locomotion, I push through their wrenching tightness and out the door, promising Erin I'll be back to check on her soon.

With concerted effort, I lean aggressively up the street toward L'stranger coffee shop, where I hope to ingest something nutritional and keep it down. I tote a copy of The Zahir by Paulo Coelho which I intend to utilize as an escape mechanism from the icky feelings permeating my body.

I sit in an comfy chair on their patio and order some green tea to match my green face. Food will have to wait. Whispering leaves encircle the porch, shading me from the hazy white sky. I crack open The Zahir.

He is troubled but doesn't know why. He wants to break up with her, but she accuses him of running. "... this scenario will simply keep recurring for as long as I refuse to risk everything for what I believe to be my reason for living..." (p. 21) Which for him is writing. Writing books. I hear a voice in my head saying, That's you, too. Stop waiting, making excuses, and follow your dream. You know what it is. I nod and read on.

He is struggling with a need for an individual journey of discovery, and a relationship that he is unwilling to give up on. "Esther, however, was the only woman in the world who understood one very simple thing: in order to find her, I first had to find myself." (p. 35) I find in his writings some insight and comfort toward the anxieties I am feeling about being away from the woman that I love. Seeking avidly, but unsure what I am looking for. Weighing being apart versus being together. Feeling sensitive to slight disruptions in our connections across tenuous lines, so distant. Unsure of the future.

I have been feeling anxious about Erin (my partner, Erin Fleming, not my traveling buddy) and recent conflicts in our communications. I feel clinging from both sides, longing for something neither of us can have right now. Intimacy. Unrealistic expectations. Are we too different to understand what the other is going through? What the other is thinking? "That is the Mongolian creation myth: out of two different natures love is born. In contradiction, love grows in strength. In confrontation and transformation, love is preserved." (p. 91)

I order a light breakfast of eggs, fruit and toast. I am feeling less green.

"I had forgotten that one has to continue walking the road to Santiago, to discard any unnecessary baggage, to keep only what you need in order to live each day, and to allow the energy of love to flow freely, from the outside in and from the inside out." (p. 230)

Letting go of unnecessary baggage... concepts of what should be, what could be... what love looks like and how it should be shared... if I deserve it, if I am giving enough... and to allow it to flow freely.

He explores an esoteric idea he refers to as the acomodador, or giving-up point. "This fitted in with my experience of learning archery - the only sport I enjoyed - for the teacher says that no shot can ever be repeated, and there is no point trying to learn from good or bad shots. What matters is repeating it hundreds and thousands of times, until we have freed ourselves from the idea of hitting the target and have ourselves become the arrow, the bow, the target." (p. 238)

Is this not like meditation? Repetition to purify the mind of conceptual separations? The giving-up point implies a threshold, one that can only be reached through practice and application, or some critical mass that demands release. Relinquishing preconceived notions, assumptions, expectations.

I am feeling a little less sick and a little less confused. But still an air of unease hangs about me. I close the book and put it away.

"My day was good, let night fall." (p.174) 


05 December 2011

爱运动 – Love sports!

It’s tangy and watered down, with a lingering aftertaste reminiscent of burped-up fruit. I stick out my tongue for better ventilation. The label claims “blueberry” but my taste-buds register cheap gin. 爱运动 (ai yundong), Love Sports, my choice of sports drink re-hydration after my late morning run down the Tanglai Canal. A stone’s throw from my apartment, the canal is a great place to be outside, shaded by the many trees that line the water’s murky edge. It also provides protection from the exhaust and clamor seeping from the city streets, which can’t quite penetrate the peaceful corridor.

Casually spinning the bottle in hand, I find a diagram that displays the primary activities that the drink is best suited for: running is first (I chose wisely), followed by yoga, breakdancing, shopping, KTV (karaoke with Chinese characteristics), and using the computer. That KTV is indeed an electrolyte vacuum.
Most striking is how many primary Chinese sports are left out.
The widely popular badminton and ping pong have their standard indoor following, with gyms and sports clubs dedicating large spaces to courts and tables. Some folks take their badminton very seriously here, and they will certainly crush you if you step up to the challenge. In the streets, mothers and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends, and school classmates will all take up a racket and shuttlecock to play sans net, batting around the birdie in the open air with glee.
Saggy but savvy old timer. Photo from here.
Parks and public squares often have outdoor ping pong tables that are free to use, just bring your own paddle and ball, and I rarely see them empty. In the new Karate Kid movie young Dre steps up to a pong table with an old-timer wearing a saggy white undershirt. The bespectacled old man begins casually, respecting the youth and inexperience of his opponent. That is, until Dre slams the ball over the net, with attitude, to impress a cute girl watching nearby. The warm-up is over, and the old man proceeds to pummel Dre relentlessly with excellent form and style. That scene captures the essence of the pong and badminton circles, where skill level and competitive ferocity far exceeds initial impressions.
Beyond these traditional games, the recreational Chinese sports scene gets a little more exciting and eclectic. Old men squat on small stools along the sidewalk to xia xiangqi, play Chinese chess. The pieces are blackened with hand oil from countless arthritic fingers and the grid is worn away from the vigorous “eating” of opponent pieces. Slamming an attacking disc upon your adversary’s with stout force is thoroughly encouraged, creating a very satisfying clap of thunder in culmination of your valiant act. And indeed much goes into each move of a street side chess game. A large crowd of variously aged male “experts” gather round the board to freely express their idea of what tactics you should employ. Only after carefully considering each piece of firmly delivered advice can you undertake your next move.
Typical Chinese Chess gathering.
I played once with my students at school during a break between classes. I had to slap their hands to keep them from moving my pieces for me. I would slap one hand and give them an ogre stare, but by the time my glaring eyes returned to the board, the student on my blind side had already moved my piece for me, silently nodding in approval. I don’t see this kind of interference amongst grown men, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.
In the evenings, a cacophony fills the public squares. Drums and cymbals pound and clang from one corner, while music blares forth from cheap speakers positioned in the other. These serve the throngs of group dancers, which gather in great numbers in nearly every open space in the city. The majority of the crowds are women over thirty, though there are sometimes giggling little girls who jump in for a few minutes, and the rare, bold male. Most forms of dance have the participants arranged in an evenly spaced grid, going through coordinated steps in unison and moving in a square-like pattern. These styles follow the cheap speaker music. The drum and cymbal dance typically requires brightly colored flags and scarves that the performers wave about them, following the cues of a whistle-blowing conductor.
The dancing is a great social event, with many people milling about the perimeter and chatting, both elderly and young. Children romp about and their parents catch up with friends and gossip. There are also more traditional dancing events where couples spin each other about to music played amidst the summer evening air.
Some fishermen enjoying a summer afternoon.
Chinese city folk are particularly taken by the unique challenges associated with riding bikes. Bikes fill the streets throughout the day, with riders wearing everything from military fatigues to skirts and high-heeled boots. Most are absurdly large or far too small relative to their respective user. Nearly every bike in circulation appears far older than me, and it is the rarely cared for machine that has ever received oil or new brake pads.
Despite the mechanical deterioration and sizing setbacks, a variety of skills are painstakingly pursued. To showcase their brute strength, the local cyclist will often bear one or more people on the rear rack, who in turn may carry a baby or a sack of potatoes. If there is no person to haul, large quantities of fruits and vegetables, bamboo poles, bricks, and dogs will all suffice for the cargo.
In order to display their sixth sense of direction, the typical rider will spend frighteningly long periods of time not looking where they are going. There is always something more interesting than the road in front of them and the locals know this, so they are forever prepared for endurance rubber necking events in which they may keep their eyes entirely askew for a minute or more.

Children on lunch break from school raid a 24 Hour Fitness.
Bravery is also a coveted trait. Trials testing the fortitude of one’s will include running red lights, cutting across all lanes of traffic without looking, darting in front of large trucks, and slalom cycling on the sidewalks. Without a helmet.
Bike handling is a skill the local rider takes very seriously. To be able to best perform the above-stated maneuvers with appropriate efficacy, one must train rigorously. Skill specific workout sessions may utilize riding with one hand, the other engaged in smoking a cigarette, holding an umbrella, or talking on the phone. Graduating to the next level, one will incorporate one or more of the above mentioned acts into a single workout. Fortunately for the novice, the average speed of transit is at a near-walking pace and therefore crashes do not carry such severe repercussions. Unless of course you are run over by one of the larger and less proficiently operated vehicles on the street.
A mid-summer favorite of older gentleman is a noon-time breast stroke across the brisk Tanglai Canal, funneling water from the Yellow River through the city. Swim-capped heads bob up and down across the turbid, stool-brown, silt-laden water, as the current pushes them downstream and downtown. After their crossing they will drip dry on their walk back, speedos offering them maximum ventilation during the stroll.
A wonderfully unique staple on city streets here is what I call 24 Hour Fitnesses. They are basically playgrounds for adults, with a large variety of well-maintained exercise equipment for moderate stretching and strengthening. Elliptical machines, swinging leg stretching devices, pull up bars, parallel bars, shoulder motion wheels, butterfly presses; all free of charge and well-used. Throughout the day, it is rare to see an empty 24 Hour Fitness anywhere in the city.
Morning fan taiji from my kitchen window.
Morning taiji must also be mentioned, though the numbers pale in comparison to the other represented sports. Regardless how crisp the morning air, elderly practitioners will gather out of doors to execute slow, calculated, graceful movements through a series of postures and forms, sometimes wielding a sword or fan to enhance their practice.
High intensity, low duration workouts are all the rage in Western endurance sports preparation. Well, China has long known about the benefits of this kind of training. I have always wondered how the people here age so gracefully, and I have witnessed their secret. All-out sprints of grandparents chasing naked babies through the streets. And to really maximize anaerobic and lactate threshold development, both parties will laugh uproariously to limit their O2 intake. Quite ingenious.
My standard running and cycling get-up.
And in this way the people here stay quite fit to a ripe old age. The group dancing, taiji, chess, fitness centers, and ping pong tables keep the populace outdoors and socializing. Engaging friends mentally and physically in these activities keeps the mind and body healthy. I think our culture could learn quite a bit from this model as we age and become more reclusive, spending more time on the couch with a remote control than in the sun with a good friend.
The sun reflects off the last of my爱运动, reminding me of the final effort of my day’s workout. I grimace and swallow the last drops of the reputedly rejuvenating fluid. Though running is about as common as seeing a foreigner in these parts, (not common), I feel grateful to be partaking in the wonderful, widespread love of sports. Sharing yet another human love that needs no language to communicate is worth every drop of vomit-flavored sports drink in order to be able to do it again the next day.

28 November 2011

Magnetic Levitation

A little blip on the MagLev train from Shanghai Pudong Airport to downtown. The main star is my primary traveling companion Hinnie "Xiaoai" Fumbeggins, with cameos from Lena Zhang and yours truly. The MagLev, derived from magnetic levitation (how cool is that?!), literally levitates, being elevated and propelled forward by magnets at insanely high speeds. And since the train doesn't actually touch the ground, the ride is also silky smooth. Shanghai's MegLev has reached a top speed of 501 kmh (311mph), but on this particular ride we are moving at a slurping snail's rate of 300kmh (186mph).

I still think it's pretty cool.

video


21 November 2011

Floating the Mekong

DAY 1

Another slowboat passing us on the river.
A gray haired man teases a small Lao girl with a leopard puppet. The prowling hand-cat lurches out across the space between them and then retreats as the young girl giggles gleefully. Her brilliant white hat bobs back and forth as she mirrors the faux predator’s movements, leaning out into the aisle and then huddling back for cover. Mom watches with smiles.
Golden afternoon light cascades through the glowing cabin. Pale gold tassels dangling from drapes shift and shine in the breeze and reflected sun. The motor thrums in the stern. Eddies and waves caress the hull and return to the river.
A man works on his boat in the setting sun.
Women clean grains in wicker baskets at the water’s edge while their children wave frantically to boats passing by. Hamlets tucked beneath crumbling limestone walls appear cut off from everything but the river. The jungle swells around rock and home.
Small canyons and tributary valleys spit streams, tumbling waterfalls down stepped rock embankments and into the Mekong, the mother river.
Children roll down sand dunes in their underwear, then climb hand-and-foot back to the top to do it again. They tug at their friends and siblings, good natured pushing and shoving. They spin with flying roundhouse kicks and lift their shirts over their heads.
Water buffalo sleep in the sandy floodplains, their ears calmly and resolutely flicking away insects. Grazing cows navigate crumbly cliffs to get to the river’s bank and have a drink.
Bright red flowers adorn an otherwise leafless tree. It’s stark white bark shines out into the valley, an absence of color amidst a saturated landscape.
The reverie is intermittently interrupted as speedboats buzz by, their passengers’ faces cloaked in masks to keep off the foam, spray and wind.

DAY 2
A riverside golden abode.

Heaping sandbars pile up out of the water’s edge, the work of countless years of molding, carving, and transporting by water. Their steep flanks are pockmarked with prints of all the valley’s inhabitants, two-legged and four-, wild and domestic, as all flock to the river as a source of life, the central artery of existence.
An elephant lopes along the shoreline, his mahout treading behind him. Gray, fleshy, muscled legs carry his lumbering mass while sail-like ears flop and flutter in the valley breeze. The imagined thumping of his great flat feet syncs in time with the firing pistons of the slowboat engine. A wondrous mammal.
Bones, turrets, spines of dragons, molars and canines of rock jut up from the swirling waters. The boat deftly navigates the otherworldly obstacles.
The largest land animal lopes along.
White, yellow, black, and orange streaked karst towers erupt from the dense green landscape, crowning the horizons and crowding the river. A small temple with Buddha images is tucked into a large cave in a cliff. White washed steps lead up into and then past it. Monks wait in longtail boats below.