Confucius Sells Out

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 5:49 pm by Benjamin Ross

As part of my post as TA for the UChicago Beijing study abroad program, we take our students on weekly “field trips.” Once a term, we take them on an overnight trip outside of Beijing. This year we went to Shandong; one day in Jinan and one day in Qufu. The latter is a non-descript small town which has little to differentiate it from the thousands of other small urban settlements scattered across the Middle Kingdom…except for its most famous citizen, the great Master Kong, commonly known as “Confucius.”

I had visited Qufu on my own in 2008, and recalled the many ways in which Confucius, and his family name (Kong) have been commercialized and commodified in Qufu. This time, I decided to catalog them:

Confucius Specialty Food Supermarket
Confucius Cuisine Restaurant (Confucius “special dishes” listed on sign)
Menu: Green Onion Fried Pancakes, Confucius Tofu, Confucius’ Sauce Chicken, Confucius’ Sauce Pork
Confucius’ crispy fried pancakes
The Confucius Family Distillery Flagship Store
…and now we have Confucius fans
Confucius chotchkies
Confucius desk ornaments…sold side by side with Communist Party leaders
life-sized hand-carved wooden statues of Confucius
The Kong Family’s Economic and Affordable Special Restaurant

“Refined fragrance Confucius family; Chinese quality, world value”

Peanut Crisp: Official Snack of the 2013 Qufu International Confucius Cultural Festival
Confucian decorative artisanal products
more Confucian food

Three Confucian Treasures, from Confucius’ 74th generation descendents

Confucius Family Homestyle Banquet
Confucius Family Handmade Fried Pancake Shop
Confucius Family Liquor Distribution Center: Famous Cigarettes and Liquor, Confucius Luxury Goods Supermarket
Three Kongs Business Hotel
even more liquor – “Confucius’ Private Stash”

Seemed like roughly half of the people I met in Qufu claimed to be a descendent of Confucius.  Looks like at very least they are benefiting quite well off the royalties…Too bad for all of you who were into Confucius, before it got cool.



Guiyang: Last Stop in Guizhou

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 4:00 am by Benjamin Ross

Guiyang is the capital of Guizhou province, and after being based out of Kaili for 3 days, I made Guiyang the last stop on my brief tour through Guizhou.

Guizhou is by most statistical measures one of the poorer provinces in China, so I wasn’t entirely surprised that the train station where I got off still had the 1990’s white tile look to it, an architectural style ubiquitous all over China in the last decade, but rapidly disappearing from the architectural landscape these days.
However as I wandered from the train station to the city center, it became apparent that Guiyang, at least architecturally speaking, was much more modern and glitzy than I had expected.
Here’s 人民广场.  (People’s Square)
…and Guiyang’s token Mao Zedong statue, this one being oddly dwarfed by the peculiar spaceship-esque building behind it.
In many ways, Chinese capital cities are all very much alike, and Guiyang fits this model.  There is very little of the old left, with most of the cityscape having been redeveloped between the early 1990’s and the present.
However, as far as provincial capitals go, Guiyang still has relatively few foreigners.  And encountering one in the street often calls for an impromptu photo shoot.
Guizhou is interesting linguistically, because like most of Southwestern China, the native language is a dialect of Mandarin.  Not “dialect” in the sense of Southeastern China where the local tongues are mostly unintelligible from one another, but dialect in the sense that any speaker of Mandarin can understand at least 95% of what’s said. It just sounds a little different, and idioms are often localized.  As an American, I’d compare it to talking to someone with a thick Australian accent.
Because of the close linguistic relationship to standard Mandarin, people in Guizhou will often speak to outsiders using the dialect.  This is very different from my experience in Fujian, where conversation immediately switches to Mandarin when any outsiders (including Chinese) are present because of the (generally accurate) assumption that outsiders simply won’t understand any of the dialect at all.
This appears to be the tallest building in Guiyang, and is still under construction.
More office/condo towers.  From this, and many other angles, Guiyang looks very much like the developed provincial capitals on the East Coast.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen this in China, but Guiyang is home to its very own bright pink “modern” woman hospital.
I’m sure folks in Gender Studies might have a thought or two on this :)
On to Guiyang street food.  I forget what this was called, but essentially a screen over a coal pit used to cook tofu squares which are then (like most food in Guizhou) topped with hot pepper
Here’s another collection of Guiyang street snacks.  One theme I noticed throughout the entire province was a lot of potatoes.
Here’s a meal I ate in a sit-down restaurant located in one of Guiyang’s few remaining pre-PRC neighborhoods.  These two dishes seemed fairly representative of restaurant food I saw in the region.  This first one is ground pork with peppers. (尖椒炒肉末)
The second is dried bamboo with pork.  (笋干炒肉丝).  It should go without saying that both came with hot peppers.
And finally, here is the last evening on my trip, spent on Hubin Lu, a popular outdoor dining venue.
Here’s my waiter at my first stop.  Apparently you don’t need to be 18 to serve liquor in China.
Here’s another local Guiyang specialty I discovered by fortunate luck.  It’s called 铁板烧.  You order from a big list of foods such as meats, vegetables, and tofus, and then the waitress brings it all to you, and cooks it all right in front of you in a big iron grill.
Here’s the finished product.
more shots from Hubin Lu
Well, there you have it.  I was only in Guiyang for about 14 hours, but I think that was about enough to take things in.  The city isn’t all that big, but certainly had enough to keep me occupied.  Culinarilly speaking, it’s above average for a Chinese capital city, so at very least in that regard it’s worth a stopover en route to Guizhou’s many destinations (only a small handful of which I had time to visit).  That’s it for the Chongqing-Guizhou pictures.  Hopefully more to come soon.



Zhenyuan, Random Guizhou

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 5:03 am by Benjamin Ross

One of my favorite activities in China has always been visiting random small towns which are off of the general tourist path.  So after my day in the tourist wonderland that is Xijiang, I opted for another day trip, to a town called Zhenyuan.

I had never heard of Zhenyuan until I was in Kaili, and a local woman I was sharing a cab with suggested I check it out.  It’s only about an hour and a half away from Kaili on the Guizhou mainline railroad, with trains going both directions on the hour, making for a convenient day trip.
Zhenyuan was originally the capital of Qiandongnan Miao Dong Autonomous Prefecture before it was moved to Kaili in the early PRC era.
As the former capital of the prefecture and home to an “ancient city” Zhenyuan is somewhat of a tourist site itself.  Although, I’d guess few people outside of Guizhou province have heard about it, let alone go there.
Zhenyuan evolved as a town spanning longitudinally across two sides of a river, and it is this river-bank architecture which I found to be its most appealing feature.
Zhenyuan’s “ancient city” was a bit of a letdown, with most of the old (or seemingly old) architecture primarily housing tourist trinket shops.
The flare of the “ancient city” is here represented in the architecture of the Zhenyuan train station.
And here’s a market shot.  Most of this pork was being lined up to be smoked and preserved into 腊肉.
No matter where I was in Guizhou, when I asked people what Guizhou food was like, the overwhelming majority answered something along the lines of “什么都要放辣椒。” (We add hot peppers to everything). And this assertion was well supported by the items sold at local markets.
Here is a collection of various plastic bottles reused, and filled with homemade hot sauce for sale at a convenience store.
I can’t seem to recall what this stuff was called, but it seemed to be the most prevalent local snack.  These meatballs and tofu balls were cooked in a scaldingly spicy hot oil, and then served in a soup with rice noodles.
Quite tasty I must say, and extreme high level on the spice.
Zhenyuan was a relaxing place to spend a day wandering around.  I wouldn’t recommend making a special trip there, nor would I recommend going if you don’t speak Mandarin, but for a short day trip from Kaili, it was a pleasant experience.  Next (and final) stop:  Guiyang.



Xijiang: An Ethnic Miao Tourism Village

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 9:04 pm by Benjamin Ross

China is home to 56 officially recognized ethnic groups, with 92% of the population belonging to the Han majority, the remaining 8% constituting the 55 minorities.  But it wasn’t always like that, at least not officially.  In the 1950’s, the Chinese government undertook the task of classifying the population by ethnicity.  When an elaborate census of the population revealed hundreds of distinct self-defined ethnic groups, the government settled on 56 nationalities, of which all Chinese citizens must belong to one.  Today most of the ethnic minorities live in the Western and Southwestern provinces.  Guizhou is one such province, with a high ethnic minority population.  Kaili serves as the capital of the Qiannandong, an “autonomous region” for the Dong and Miao (Hmong) minorities.  But with Kaili itself being heavily Sinicized, the village of Xijiang is often considered to be the center of Miao culture in Guizhou.

Xijiang is considered to be the largest Miao village in Guzhou.
It’s also home to the largest parking lot I’ve ever seen in a rural village, used for the hordes of tour buses and private cars which come in from Kaili.  (This is only a side street, not the main parking lot).
While Xijiang is indeed a large, intact, Miao minority village, it is also an officially designated government tourist attraction, and entering the village comes with a 100 RMB price tag.
I had a lot of conflicting thoughts in Xijiang.  On the one hand, the place is absolutely beautiful, and the Miao people do actually still live there in their traditional wooden houses.  On the other hand (as will be apparent in upcoming photos), the government has poured a ton of money into the place in order to create a veritable ethnic themepark to showcase the Miao culture to tourists.
Here are some Israeli friends I met up with in Kaili.  Because of the amount of tourists, many of the wooden houses have been converted to cafes and restaurants, such as this one with the excellent view behind.
The food was overpriced, but quite tasty.  This dish is bamboo shoots with smoked bacon.
The most popular street food in Xijiang seemed to be this spicy french fry concoction.
Now we are approaching the center of Xijiang, with our traditional wooden China Mobile shop.
Ethnic tourism is a big deal in China, with two of the primary attractions being the minority dances and minority traditional clothing.  Interestingly these two facets of minority culture seem to almost invariably be associated with the ethnic women.  At the center of town, Miao women, in costume, put on a never-ending show of their traditional song and dance.
Here again I was conflicted by this contrived iteration of Miao culture.  On the one hand, it seemed as if the village had monetarily benefited a great deal by the tourism brought in.  Whether it was being a professional dancer, running a restaurant, a guesthouse, or even selling soda and beer, there appeared to be a multitude of employment and business opportunities in Xijiang, all of which benefiting from the advantages of inflated tourist prices.  On the other hand, at times it was difficult to escape from the “animals at the zoo” feeling I was getting from watching the various Miao ethnic performances.
More crowds gathering to watch the song and dance at the town center.
These are the shops surrounding the town center.
Another hot business is the selling of Miao women’s clothing, available in all shapes and colors.
For a small fee, you can even rent the Miao clothes, and have your picture taken by a waterfall.
But over-commercialization aside, Xijiang is indeed quite scenic, and worth a visit, even considering the 100 RMB price tag.
This is the Xijiang Middle School.
Xijiang is home to several aesthetically pleasing bridges as well, though I’m not sure whether these came before or after the government tourist village designation.
The influx of tourism has also led to the opening of several bars, such as this one pictured above.
What I found to be most rewarding about Xijiang was a walk outside of the village itself and into the surrounding rice patty fields.  The following pics are all from that walk, starting just outside of the village, and heading outward on a dirt road.
After a pleasant day in Xijiang, I took the bus back to Kaili, and in the parking lot was met, once again, by a troop of dancing Miao women in costume.  The more of this kind of thing I saw, the more I wondered whether the Miao women even wear their ethnic dress on a regular basis, or if it’s simply a work uniform. If we excuse how contrived and commercialized this “ethnic tourism village” was, Xiajiang did make for a relaxing and interesting day trip, and the scenery itself makes this village a worthwhile destination.  As a western visitor, it’s easy to criticize the commercialization of ethnic minorities because this kind of tourism runs so contrary to what we would hope to see from such a site.  But at the same time, I would be curious what the actual impact on these villages is, especially from an economic perspective.  I tried asking these questions to some of the locals, but unfortunately, like most heavily touristed places, the residents were not very interested in discussing these matters with an outsider.  Any insight on the matter would be much appreciated.  Next stop in Guizhou:  Zhenyuan


…and on to Guizhou, first stop: Kaili

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 5:01 am by Benjamin Ross

Guizhou is a relatively poor and somewhat isolated province in Southern China.  It’s one of those places I’ve always wanted to visit, but for one reason or another, never had a specific reason to go.  So after a few days in Chongqing, Guizhou made for a logical next destination.

Before I even got off the train, I was amazed at the extent of the infrastructure in this otherwise rugged, rather isolated terrain.
My first stop was Kaili, a one-room train station kind of town, but a rather big one at that.
Kaili is the capital city of the Qiandongnan Autonomous Prefecture of Guizhou.  Home to many Miao (Hmong) and Dong ethnic minority peoples.
Despite it’s ethnic population, Kaili is very much like any other third/fourth tier Chinese city.
Urban residents of Kaili are for the most part completely Sinicized, speaking the Guizhou dialect of Mandarin as their mother tongue, and with every day life indistinguishable from Han Chinese.
There really isn’t a lot to do or see in Kaili, as it’s more of a jumping off.  Here’s the Kaili Ethnic Minorities Museum, which had some decent exhibits.  Extra points for the free admission and inscriptions written in English (as opposed to Chinglish).
One thing about Guizhou I discovered is that these people know what’s up when it comes to potatoes.  I probably saw more various potato concoctions in Guizhou than any other part of China I can think of off hand.  I forget what these were called, but they were essentially spicy home fries.
Guizhou, along with Guangxi and Yunnan, make up the belt across southern China where rice noodles make up an every day staple in the diet.  Interestingly enough, they are most commonly eaten for breakfast.
Kaili’s most famous contribution to Chinese cuisine is the use of 糯米 (fermented rice) to add sour flavor to soups.  This is 酸汤米粉, rice noodles in a sour soup.
Kaili’s most renowned dish is 酸汤鱼 (sour soup fish).  In this dish, a whole fish (or several fish) is cut up and boiled inside a pot of sour soup.  It usually serves at least 3-4 people.
Here’s just another typical Guizhou dish, this one made with pork belly.  Whenever I asked locals about Guizhou food, they simply said “什么都要放辣椒” (we add hot peppers to everything).
more random Kaili shots
The museum at night!
Despite being a relatively ordinary Chinese city, Kaili did have a fantastic street food/restaurant street.  It’s a small, uphill corridor, on the south side of Beijing Xi Lu, just east of the main intersection of Shanshan Lu.  Highly recommended to anybody who stops in Kaili.
So despite its majority ethnic population, there really isn’t much in Kaili which separates it from any of the other several hundred or so Chinese cities of its size.  Nonetheless, it’s a nice place to stay, and a convenient location to daytrip from, as will hopefully be shown in the upcoming posts on Xijiang and Zhenyuan.



Chongqing: It’s time to get vertical!

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 10:15 am by Benjamin Ross

For the labor day holiday this year, I took a trip to 2 places I had never visited, Chongqing and Guizhou.

Chongqing is one of China’s 4 municipalities (cities not part of a province and instead controlled directly by the central government).  It’s sometimes incorrectly referred to as the largest city in the world.  While technically not incorrect, the city of Chongqing has an area roughly the size of the state of South Carolina, the vast majority of which being rural land and mountains.
Nonetheless, it is still one of the largest, most concentrated urban areas in Asia, and the most developed city in Western China.  This and the following shots are all from the CBD.
Chongqing is very much a vertical city, due to its city center being located on a narrow peninsula created by the confluence of the Yangtze and Yaling Rivers.  This makes for an urban core resembling a mainland version of Hong Kong where space is at a premium and growth moves upward as much as it does outward.
At the center of which is Jie Fang Bei, this large phallic symbol, symbolizing China’s liberation following World War 2.
Chongqing is very much a poster child of China’s rapid industrialization and modernization.  At times, it feels as if the entire city is one giant construction site.  Nothing caught this feeling with me more than this bridge over the Jialing River just before it flows into the Yangtze, being built before my eyes.
Chongqing’s unique geography (basically hills sandwiched between 2 rivers) makes for some of the most unique architecture I’ve ever encountered in China.  Case in point:  Hongya Cave, an 11 story Disneyland-esque mall/hotel/entertainment district, built literally clinging to the side of a cliff.
Here’s another shot from below, with Hongya Cave in the bottom right.
another from below
 and a shot at night
While aesthetically pleasing, Hongya Cave (where my hostel was located as well) was miserable to get up and down, a commute necessary to get from my hostel below to the main street).  With its insufficient number of elevators, it often took 15 minutes to get to get from bottom to top.  Walking around would have probably taken twice as long and been entirely up hill.  This situation was made even worse when the entire building flooded, shutting down all elevator activity for an evening.
Chongqing’s CBD is home to some of the most posh office towers in China, but walking distance away, you are surrounded by visual reminders that this is still Western China.
Near the river docks are endless markets selling cheap, light manufactured goods, such as clothing, shoes, and low-end electronics, which have literally come right off the boat in big bags such as these behind these 2 migrant workers.
High Rise development has now spread far beyond the CBD and the peninsula.  This shot is looking North, I believe.
ships unloading on the docks
As Chongqing was the temporary capital of the KMT during World War II, the city is also filled with underground caves dug into cliffs.  This former air-raid shelter has now been converted into a popular, late-night restaurant.
There were at least 7 or 8 rooms such as this, stretching back to back, vertically, deep into the rock, and under the CBD.
Chongqing is also home to an absolutely fantastic urban planning museum.  Here are some shots of their models and exhibits.
more vertical Chongqing shots
the new opera house
and of course, more construction
Here’s the old Chongqing Opera House.  I’m sure it was grand in its time, but compared to what’s been built over the past 10 years, most of what’s left of old Chongqing is quite underwhelming.
and a look from outside
Here’s the building which houses the Chongqing Museum and the 3 Gorges Museum.  (here’s a post on some of the propaganda inside).
Here are some shots from the outer urban districts of Chongqing.  Notice how vertical the architecture is, even off of the peninsula.
more night views
One of the best ways to see Chongqing is via the elevated mass transit trains which fly through the city often several stories above ground.  The following group of pics were all taken from elevated subway stops.
And of course, there’s the food.  Here are some outdoor restaurants in the CBD.
Never seen this before, but young girls with guitars and amps strapped to their backs, would work the crowd at the outdoor restaurants.  Each carried a book of songs, and for 20 RMB, they would serenade your table.
ok, on to the food.  Chongqing is world-renowned for it’s spicy cuisine.  Here’s some 水煮鱼 (spicy fish in soup)
now up close
宫保鸡丁 (kung pao chicken)
回锅肉 (spicy, twice-cooked pork belly)
鱼香肉丝  (yuxiang pork)
And of course, we did a big hotpot meal (with a group of young, female, Chinese backpackers who were all staying at my hostel).
Chongqing was truly a fascinating city, and definitely a must for anyone interested in China’s rapid development and urbanization.  However, one caveat which you don’t get by looking at the pictures is that Chongqing is really fucking hot!!  And humid!   My trip was in late April, and temperature and humidity were both in the 90’s my entire stay (except for the half day when there was torrential downpour).  According to locals, the hot season hadn’t even started yet.  And coupled with the fact that so much of the walking is uphill, if I ever go back (and I certainly hope I do), it is definitely going to be in the winter.
So there you have it.  Chongqing is one of the most photogenic (in my humble opinion) cities in China.  I hope you enjoyed the pics.  Guizhou is next.



Yangzhou, Home of the World’s Most Famous Fried Rice…and Jiang Zemin

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 8:54 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 8th entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

After two weeks of traveling, I had reached the end of the line.  Nanjing was to be the last stop on my journey from the Yangtze Delta to the backwoods of Anhui and back to the Delta.  I had to return to Shanghai to catch a flight back to Chicago, and Tex had to get back to Wenzhou to start teaching again.  After a few days of relaxing and enjoying the laowai life in Nanjing, we busted out the backpacks, and headed off for one final hurrah, a day trip to Yangzhou.

Yangzhou is a relatively modest sized town about an hour and a half from Nanjing via train.  From what we had gathered, we could walk most of the town in a single day if we had an early start.  Before our trip, I admittedly didn’t know much about Yangzhou.  In fact for many people, (myself included) they only know Yangzhou in the context of being the birthplace of Yangzhou (young chow) fried rice…that, and former Chinese president Jiang Zemin, although I’m guessing the the fried rice probably receives more fanfare.

Tex and I set out with the simple goals of 1) exploring the Yangzhou city area on foot and 2) seeking out the world famous Yangzhou fried rice.  It didn’t take us long to tackle the second goal, as our bus from the train station dropped us off immediately in front of this restaurant, named simply “Yangzhou Fried Rice.”

Fried rice has a certain allure in the West as being one of those sought after Asian dishes, presumably made carefully from fine ingredients in fancy kitchens and dining establishments across the Middle Kingdom.  In reality, fried rice is essentially the Chinese response to leftovers.  In most Chinese households, fried rice is what happens when you are stuck with cold rice and leftover scraps of meat and veggies from the previous day’s meal.  The rice is thrown into a wok, along with a fried egg, and then mixed with whatever excess foodstuffs might be lying around the house.  It is not intentional, gourmet or exotic.  It’s simply practical, a functional method for the disposal of leftovers, which of course was also the impetus for the invention of Chop Suey in California.

Now with all that being said, Yangzhou has become known across the Middle Kingdom (and in many parts of the world for that matter) for Yangzhou Fried Rice, a special recipe, which is prepared intentionally, and is commonly eaten in classy restaurants, by those with a refined taste for Chinese cuisine.

If I had to break it down to a simple explanation, the secret ingredient to Yangzhou Fried Rice is…everything!  According to the free brochures at the Yangzhou Fried Rice restaurant, the ingredients include “white rice, sea cucumber, dried scallops, chicken thigh, Chinese ham (火腿), fresh river shrimp, mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots, peas, etc,” however this is just a small sampling.  Unfortunately I didn’t take better notes at the time, but I remember counting nearly 20 different substances in my rice.

When all was said and done, there wasn’t anything which jumped out as particularly special about Yangzhou fried rice. It was just…well…fried rice, albeit a rather multifarious recipe, but still on the whole, fried rice.  Definitely not worth a trip to Yangzhou just to sample it, but it surely worth eating if you are there.

Other than eat fried rice, there really isn’t much to do per se in Yangzhou, but fortunately the city has some rather picturesque streets and architecture, so we spent most of the day meandering around town.
There are of course the requisite 80’s style bathroom tile buildings and cement cages.
But overall, a rather large amount of the local infrastructure and housing stock is of vintage style.
Like Suzhou, and many other cities in Jiangsu, Yangzhou is a water town with canals flowing throughout the city.
Unlike Suzhou, Yangzhou has not undergone an explosion of modernism and industrial development, and there are no skyscrapers, industrial parks, or compounds of Westerner businessmen and their latte-sipping wives.
Many of its locals continue living the simple life, pictured here washing clothes in the street with their neighbors.
Most of the canals were lined with ornate cement bridges and railings, making Yangzhou one of the more aesthetically pleasing small Chinese cities to explore on foot.
Unlike Fuyang and Taihe, Yangzhou is not poor. As is the case most of southern Jiangsu and Northern Zhejiang, the pocket books people of Yangzhou have benefited greatly from the economic development of the post Reform and Opening up era.  One manifestation of this is the Dairy Queen we found there.  While it may not seem significant at first, 18 RMB (approx $2.50 USD) for a Blizzard is an astronomically large amount to pay in a country where ice cream can commonly be purchased from street kiosks for 2 RMB.  Accordingly, Dairy Queen (simply called “DQ” in China, there is no Chinese name), is generally found only in the wealthiest, most developed cities in China.   As you can see from the picture above, Tex was quite excited by our find.
Yangzhou has recently been focusing on exploiting its tourism potential and in the eastern part of the city, a large tract of neighborhoods had been leveled to make room for a new tourist street (pictured above).  It’s part of a new trend in Chinese city planning which I like to call “tastefully touristy” development, where buildings and streets are reconstructed, in a careful attempt to mimic the architecture of times past.  While it’s never as good as the real thing, these developments do provide some sense of historical authenticity, as opposed to the typical plasticy tourist traps.
As much effort as was put into the tourist area, it still paled in comparison to the extant canals and dwellings which still make up the majority of the Yangzhou cityscape.
I also found Yangzhou to possess some of the best public landscaping I have seen in China.
Several of the canals are lined with tour boats…
…as well as restaurants on the water.
In one of the public parks, Tex and I came across the site of retirees partaking in their daily half hour exercise regiment.  A woman in the middle of the group led the exercises with a cheer cadence which was repeated loudly by the group throughout the workout.  Here’s a video below.

more canals and bridges…
even more canals and bridges
Yes, there was definitely no shortage of water in Yangzhou.
Like anywhere in China, Yangzhou also had its default “scenic spots,” like this temple which we did not bother going into.  Often times “attractions” such as these are simply commercialized versions of the sites and buildings which can be experienced for free in their natural context anyway.
We had planned to take the last train from Yangzhou to Nanjing which left around 7 pm, so we spent our final hour in Yangzhou exploring this bustling snack street.
Shawarma (or 土耳其烤肉, “Turkish roasted meat” as it’s called) is apparently a growing fad in Chinese street dining.  We had to have a little taste before our final meal in Yanghzou, which consisted of…

…yup, you guessed it, more Yangzhou Fried Rice.  We figured since we’d come all the way, and probably would never be back in Yangzhou, we owed it to ourselves to try the famous fried rice from at least two different restaurants.

As an interesting side note, Yangzhou Fried Rice is actually quite expensive in Yangzhou, typically going for about 15 RMB (approx $2.15 USD) for a serving like this, even in most hole-in-the-wall eateries.  In most parts of China, fried rice in restaurants such as these is priced in the mid single digits.

We topped it off with an order of gulaorou (sweet and sour pork).

China is known for cramped bus seats, and low hanging doorways, but this is something I had never previously come across in my travels: a miniature toilet.  I tried to get the brooms and the trashcan in the picture to capture a relative size comparison, but let’s just say this contraption would have been ergonomically perfect for me when I was about 5.  The characters on the wall read:

Bowel Movements Prohibited;  The pipes will get clogged

Finally, here’s a shot at night of the tower pictured at the top of this post.  If anybody knows the name and/or the history of this monument, please feel free to speak up in the comments section.  It was quite a spectacle at night.  I couldn’t help but wonder how often the sides have to be repaired from erhant motorists crashing into it.

After our 8 hour soujourn in Yangzhou, Tex and I caught the train back to Nanjing.  The following morning Tex headed back to Wenzhou, and I took the bullet train to Shanghai, where I crashed for the evening with some old friends, hurridly stocked up on tea and supplies from a Fujianese tea shop, and then flew back to the US the following afternoon.  After two weeks of non-stop fieldwork and writeups, and then two more weeks of travel through eight different cities, it had been my shortest (and most efficient) trip to China to date.  I’ve got a few more posts in the works formulated from thoughts and experiences from the trip, but will probably shift the focus of this blog more towards Chicago (including the Chinese community here) in the coming months.  As of now, I have no set plans for any future trips to China.  Thanks to everybody for following this series, and I’ll do my best to keep the content flowing.



Nanjing: Cultural Oasis of the South

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 10:33 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 7th entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

In Anhui, Tex and I saw what we went to see, namely under-developed, low income, areas of rural China with little outside contact.  Now it was time to return to the friendly confines of China’s big city foreigner “comfort bubble.”  Neither of us had previously visited Nanjing, former capital of the Republic of China as well as several dynastic governments, so we decided to stop to scope it out for a few days

We were met in Nanjing by Andy Goldstein, a fellow American (and member of the tribe) who has been living in Nanjing for the past five years.  Andy had a nice summation of Nanjing.  He said it is the Chinese equivalent of Boston.  Not as big as Beijing and Shanghai, but multiple universities, and brimming with intellectual activity.  In this respect, I would definitely agree with Andy’s summation.  After our rapid pace of traveling through Anhui, Tex and I took a 3 days to relax, sight see, and enjoy the former capital of China.

The streetscape of Nanjing looks very much like that of any other major Chinese city.
As far as major Chinese cities go, I found Nanjing to be quite livable.  It’s small enough that you can get just about anywhere by cab for under 20 RMB, and even the subway which currently only has one line was quite useful all things considered.  I have to say that Nanjing would be an ideal location for somebody who wants to experience a large Chinese cultural center, but without all the hustle and bustle (not to mention traffic congestion) of Beijing or Shanghai.
In terms of its architecture and streetscape, Nanjing is very much a southern city.  However, in terms of the personality types it attracts and the general vibe of the town, I found it felt a lot more like Beijing than it did Shanghai or Guangzhou.
Although not nearly as expansive and populous as Beijing and Shanghai, Nanjing is still quite large and developed, and has one of the more well-defined skylines of the Middle Kingdom.
The only major site Tex and I had on our itinerary was the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall.  In the winter of 1937/38 Japanese troops invaded Nanjing as part of their Chinese conquest effort.  During the ensuing siege Japanese soldiers killed between 100,000 and 300,000 (depending who you ask) civilians.  It’s 300,000 if you ask the Memorial.
Admission to the museum was 5 RMB (about 60 cents USD), which probably reflects the central governments desire for people to learn about the events in Nanjing in 1937.
Accordingly, every caption was written in English, Chinese…and Japanese!
The message was clear.  The powers that be wanted as many people to see the museum and learn as much about the Nanjing Massacre as possible…which is why I found it rather ironic that cameras were not allowed in to the majority of the museum, and hence few photos follow.

I had done a decent amount of reading in regards to the Nanjing Massacre, and in addition to the historical events themselves, my interests also extended to how the they would would be presented in a Chinese museum.  Two years ago I visited the Japanese war museum at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo for that same reason.  The Japanese museum presented a rather curious view at historical events which undoubtedly would infuriate those who had experienced them first hand.  You can read some of them in this post I wrote two years ago.

As for the museum in Nanjing, in terms of curation, it was by far and away the best museum collection I have seen anywhere in China bar none. There was a copious amount of artifacts, images, and information, all given insightful and well-written multi-lingual captions and explanations, that would have given any American museum a run for its money. (From my experience, well-presented museum exhibits in the Middle Kingdom are few and far between).

However, the museum reinforced a theory which I have been nursing along for the past couple years.  That is, that Chinese propaganda results in the exact opposite of the intended effect when applied towards Westerners.  Let me use myself as an example.

Just like most historical man-made tragedies, there are certain fringe groups who maintain that the Rape of Nanjing either a) didn’t happen or b) accounts of it are grossly exaggerated.  The academic credence given to these theories is somewhere in the neighborhood of Holocaust denial and Bigfoot sightings, but it is certainly enough to get China (and most of Asia) in an uproar from time to time.

As we meandered through the museum reading captions on the walls, we were constantly bombarded with rhetoric such as “This proves that the Japanese brought great suffering on China,” and “The history cannot be denied.”   As a Westerner, I couldn’t help thinking to myself that the preponderance of evidence (photos, artifacts, personal accounts and taped testimonies) meticulously displayed in the museum were perfectly ample in shedding any possible doubt one might have about the events in question.  But every time I read the word “prove” in a caption I couldn’t help the knee-jerk reaction that the authors clearly had an agenda.  In my Western-educated psyche, this incited the natural feeling of doubt about the claims which were being “proved.”  In other words, I never had a shred of doubt about anything I had heard about the Nanjing Massacre until I visited the Memorial Hall.  This is not by any means I have any concrete doubts of what happened in Nanjing, but it is an interesting psychological question to ponder.

I would be interested to hear what kinds of feelings this over-extended (by my Western standards) rhetoric brings about among people who have been educated in the East, and how it might differ from mine, which I feel are quite typical of those educated in the West.

The museum is located outside of the Nanjing city walls in an area which used to be on the outskirts of town.  The reason why, which we learned, was that it was built on the site of a mass grave uncovered years later.  The final exhibit of the Memorial Hall was a walk through areas of the body dumping grounds which had been partially excavated and were open to viewing.
The end of the museum is marked by an eternal flame with the character 祭 (ji4), which refers to offerings to sacrifice.
Once we were outside of the actual museum, we were allowed to take pictures again.
After the Nanjing Massacre Memorial, we took a walk along the moat and city walls which partially surround the city.  The skies were clear and temperatures were in the 70s, which was fortunate because most locals told us Nanjing only gets about 2 weeks of nice weather all year.  The rest of the time you either are freezing (most buildings don’t have heat), or roasting in the heat of the summer.

Ancient Chinese god of fertility?
Like Beijing, Nanjing also has an active community living in old hutong style houses.  Although the buildings are old and dilapidated, and many lack modern plumbing, its inhabitants are not from the lower class.  Rather, they are upper-middle class holdouts who have elected to preserve their traditional neighborhoods rather than move into the modern high rises which can be found all over the city.
This particular neighborhood was just inside the south side of the Nanjing city wall.
After 4 days of trekking through Anhui, Tex (right) and I decided we wanted to relax and be laowai again for a few days in Nanjing.  So on our second evening in town, we met up with Andy (left) at a bar downtown which served stout beer for 30 RMB a glass, roughly the equivalent amount of money needed survive on street food in Anhui for a week.  As it so often does, the evening morphed unintentionally into a karaokeefest when a young Chinese man in his twenties invited the three of us (as well as our newly acquainted couch surfer friend Stephanie) to join him and his friends in his private KTV room.
The man (left) was in charge of an organization of tennis coaches, and had been treating several other coaches to an evening of binge drinking and off-key renditions of Chinese pop songs.  He had invited the four of us into his room presumably to garner more face in front of his associates. I’ve found myself in this type of situation countless times in China and creates an excellent opportunity for symbiotic usury.  We get free alcohol, excellent oral Chinese practice, and rambunctious evening of entertainment.  The other party gets the requisite face generated from having a group of foreigners constantly toasting him throughout the evening in the karaoke room he has hosted.
In addition to the drinks and singing, another element of the Chinese male KTV experience is the KTV girls.  For a fee ranging anywhere from 100-500 RMB, these girls can be “rented” for the evening to sing with, flirt, and pour drinks for patrons.  They also tend to consume a decent amount of the alcohol that the host has payed for as well.  This is certainly nothing I would seek out and pay for myself, but when somebody else is footing the bill….why not?
The girls generally come from different parts of the country (especially Dongbei and Anhui) and are attracted to the profession as a way to escape the dullness of their rural lives.  Being a KTV girl is a profession which is generally frowned upon by Chinese society, and thus leaving the hometown is a necessity.

About three hours after we had been invited into the karaoke room, the bar closed down and a waiter brought our host the bill.  The total came to over 10,000 RMB (approx $1400 USD).  In accordance with Chinese social norms, our host paid the entire bill himself, without expecting any contributions from anyone else in attendance.

Being the veritable Boston of Chicago, Nanjing has its fair share of college campuses, and some of the finer ones in the Middle Kingdom taboot.  Many of them are concentrated in a single university district. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the following pictures are all from Nanjing Normal University.

With its multiple major universities, Nanjing also has a quite sizable foreign student population.  In most Chinese cities, when you first meet another foreigner you ask them “Where do you teach English?”  In Nanjing you ask them “Where do you study Chinese?”
Many of the campuses are located in the vicinity of Nanjing’s “Student Street,” in the heart of the student district (unfortunately not actually pictured here). The street and surrounding area has a Starbucks, a McDonalds, small restaurants, tea shops, a specialty shop which sells Heinz tomato ketchup and Captain Morgan’s, and various barbershops, net bars, and other establishments to serve the massive student population.
lots of basketball as well
and of course, lots of abortions. In this particular add the Nanjing Dongda Hospital Institute is advertising “Painless Abortion…Endless Holiday…Full Package 350 yuan.”
At Nanjing University they have what I am told is the most extensive Institute of Jewish Studies in the Middle Kingdom.  Now, keep in mind, this is not an institute for Jewish people to learn about their history and culture, but rather one for Chinese students who are not necessarily of Jewish lineage or belief.

Andy told me that once a year, one of the professors with invites him (along with any other Heebs he can round up) to attend class for a day so that the Chinese students can get ask questions to bona fide living, breathing, talking Jews.  Andy and the other Jews are then give demonstrations of Shabbos, Hanukkah, and other Jewish customs.

Yeah, these shots are totally cliche, but it is always somewhat refreshing to see a pinch of the countryside in the big city.
Ok, so now to the most important part…food.  Anybody who has set foot on Chinese soil at one time or another has probably eaten baozi (包子).  Essentially baozi are hand-made dumplings cooked in bamboo steamers.  They can be eaten almost anywhere in the Middle Kingdom, and they vary a great deal from region to region.  The inside can be filled with either meat, vegetables, or just about any combination of the two.  Last summer I even saw multiple shops selling mapo tofu baozi (麻婆豆腐包子) in Beijing, and pizza and curry baozi selling in Tokyo 7-11’s.

What the Yangzi River Delta region is known for however, is what are called 汤包 (tang1 bao1), our “soup baozi.”  Rather than being made of mantou bread, as are most baozi, the soup baozi have a thin, impermeable casing, more similar to that of a regular dumpling.  Inside, in addition to the pork ball, is a pocket of “soup” which if the entire baozi is not consumed at once, will explode all over an unexpecting consumer’s clothes when bit into.  If you pop the entire thing in at once, you can appreciate the outside, the pork ball, and the soup all at once.  We ate these at Student Street every morning for breakfast

Her’es a local chicken dish which andy ordered, but unfortunately I cannot recall the name.  The inside is giblets of woodchipper chicken* stewed in peppers, and on the outside is a bread onto which the chicken can be placed upon.

*Woodchipper chicken” is a term I like to think I invented myself.  It is the most common way to serve chicken in China, and gets its name because random parts of an entire chicken (bones, head, feet, etc.) are all chopped up randomly as if they were simply thrown into a woodchipper before cooking.

As alluded to above, we spent most of our nights in Nanjing reverting back to laowai again, and the Nanjing student street is an excellent place to do that.  On our second evening, Andy introduced us to the legendary “Nanjing beer lady.”  While most nearby bars serve 12 oz bottles of beer for no less than 10 RMB, a while back an enterprising middle aged woman on student street set up a few chairs in front of the small kiosk she ran, and started selling cold 18 oz. beers for 3.6 RMB.  Being that it is China, and there are no open container laws (or at least none that I’ve ever seen enforced) foreigners, always in search of the cheapest cold beer, would congregate for hours on the sidewalk, chatting and getting drunk off beers that cost less than 50 cents a pop.

The Beer Lady herself is of a rather nasty disposition, speaks no English, and requests for beer are always replied to with “Get it yourself.  The fridge is around back.”  Nonetheless, it’s the cheapest booze in town, and the Beer Lady always attracts a decent crowd when the weather in town.

Here’s a shot of our Nanjing Crew on our last night in town.  From left to right that’s Tex, Shakiri, Andy, Stephanie, me, and on the far right the Beer Lady’s daughter and grand-daughter.  No word yet on whether they will take over the business when the Beer Lady decides to retire.

新街口 (xin1 jie1 kou3), Nanjing’s central shopping district at night
And finally a shot of the Nanjing Train Station at night, which is conveniently connected to the city center by Nanjing’s newly built subway system.

And that’s all for Nanjing, a pleasant, vibrant, culturally stimulating city in which I would consider spending more time if I ever moved back to the Middle Kingdom.  After our stint in Nanjing, Tex had to return to Wenzhou to work, and I had to make my way back to Shanghai to catch my flight back to Chicago.  However, on our second to last day traveling, we took a day trip to Yangzhou, and the ensuing travel log will be the final entry in this series…coming soon.



Watch me get mobbed by 3rd graders in Taihe!

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 9:33 pm by Benjamin Ross

This little episode from my recent stop in Taihe was certainly too surreal of an experience not to get on film.  Kudos to Tex for the live narration.



Taihe; Rural Anhui in all its Glory and Grit

Posted in Travel Log (Asia) at 5:04 pm by Benjamin Ross

This is the 6th entry in a series titled From the Delta to the Backwoods about my recent trip to China.

After spending two days exploring  Hefei and wandering the streets Fuyang, Tex and I still wanted to travel deeper into the backwoods of Anhui.  Our goal had been to see some of the most underdeveloped and isolated (relatively speaking) locales in the Middle Kingdom, and we wanted to dig even further into the thick of it.  There is no better way to do this than head deeper down the administrative ladder of the Chinese map.  But before explaining the next leg of our journey, let me provide a brief explanation of how Chinese administrative divisions are broken up.

The massive political unit we know today as the People’s Republic of China is broken down into a massive Confucian municipal hierarchy, much of which has been in place since ancient times. Modern China is broken into 22 provinces(省) and 5 autonomous regions (自治区) which are essentially the same as provinces, as well as 4 municipalities controlled directly by the central government.  Each province is broken into geographic regions referred to as “cities,“ (市) with the largest city generally designated as the capital (省会).  In addition to housing the provincial government, capital cities are also generally the hub of transport and commerce for each province.  Each “city” region is then broken into various “counties,” (县) with the city center serving as the de facto hub of government, transportation, and commerce.  Within each county, there is a county seat which serves as  the de facto hub of the county.  The pattern continues down several more bureaucratic levels, so that every last smattering of buildings across the Middle Kingdom is relegated to its place within the whole hierarchy.

Fuyang is a city (市) and Tex and I wanted to travel to one of the surrounding counties (县) under the administration of Fuyang, so we consulted the map, and decided to head to Taihe (太和), a county seat which appeared to be roughly an hour away according to the map. The beauty of traveling in unfamiliar parts of China is that transportation patterns are entirely predictable, and based around this municipal hierarchy.  Thus, as Tex and I both accurately predicted, there is a mini bus running from Fuyang to Taihe, which departs roughly every twenty minutes.  There are no set times, and no advance tickets.  The bus simply leaves when it gets full.  There are always enough people wanting to travel from the “county” up to the “city” that there is a constant flow of traffic in either direction.  Likewise, there were also buses from Fuyang to Hefei, which ran every 5-10 minutes, and from Taihe, there were similar shuttles en route to surrounding villages. This same pattern applies virtually everywhere in China when traveling from a city to a county town.
The bus cost 10 RMB (approx $1.30 USD) each way and was ridden mainly by farmers and merchants from Taihe making their regular trips back and forth from Fuyang.  As is common in rural China, the bus made frequent stops along the road to pick up new passengers.
Taihe was like a miniature version of Fuyang, with its drab architecture and modest streetscape.
The reactions we received from most locals was as if we were martians arriving on earth for the first time.  It was as if they had heard of the existence of 6 foot white guys, but didn’t fully comprehend it until they saw them in person.  It was difficult to stop anywhere without making a scene.
Fuyang (where we went in the previous entry), although poor and underdeveloped, is not what I would consider “rural.”  Taihe, on the other hand, was I would say, more rural than urban.  Thus, you encounter numerous sites that aren’t typically seen in cities, such as this veritable corn/rice processor.  It looks like an old truck engine, and has the cacophonous sound of an electrical generator, but in reality, it’s sole function is to produce a rudimentary snack which sells for a mere 1 RMB per bag.

The operator pours a mixture of half rice and half corn into a funnel at the top, and then after much smoke, clanging, and dust a cylindrical tube with the consistency of a cheeto shoots out the end.  The cheetoish mixture of corn and rice is then broken into sticks about a foot in length and bagged for sale.  The pure rice/corn mixture without any artificial additives or flavors, provides a nostalgic reminder of what chips tasted like before the advent of modern food science.

Although Taihe is small, rural, and for lack of better terminology, out in the sticks, this does not mean it was by any means desolate.  I couldn’t find accurate figures, but Tex and I both estimated there must be at least 200,000 or so people in Taihe.  Bear in mind, this is a town which can be traversed on foot in roughly half an hour.
A common street snack we found, especially near schools in Taihe was this concoction made from bean noodles.
The finished product looks like this, and like most street food in Anhui, sells for 1 RMB (approx 15 cents USD).
It isn’t every day that martians descend on Taihe, especially just as school is letting out.  This, accordingly, caused quite the ruckus near the school gate, as a mob of elementary school students watched Tex and me curiously as we payed for our snack and ate.
The timid curiosity quickly morphed into rabid excitement as the children discovered that these two odd creatures could communicate with them in their native language.  The scene which would then ensue was like nothing I have ever experienced in the Middle Kingdom.
While eating our bean noodles, a mob of students began to gather, who along with their parents on the periphery, all wanted to get a glimpse at the two six-foot Chinese-speaking white dudes,  Out of the blue, a little girl handed me her school textbook and asked me to sign my name on the first page.
Figuring it was but a minor request, I complied and signed my name in both English and Chinese on the first page of her textbook.
Seeing how I had agreed to her request, student after student, pulled out their textbooks, all waving them in my face and pleading for an autograph.
Tex, who stands a good 4 inches taller than me, couldn’t escape either.  Soon the both of us had aching hands from all the signatures.  But the excitement on the students’ faces was too much for us not to comply with their small request.  We each signed every last student textbook, plus a few datebooks from parents.Everything was going fine until all the attention attracted a police officer.  The officer shot us a questioning look, and Tex and I, somewhat worried, decided that we weren’t really doing anything wrong, and even if we were, it wasn’t as if we could have escaped anyway since we were surrounded by a veritable wall of children.  The officer approached me, asked where I was from and what I was doing in Taihe.  As kids were still shoving textbooks in my face and pulling on my jacket, I nervously told him that we were from the United States and we had come to Taihe to experience Chinese small town life.  After a brief pause, the officer reached into his pocket, pulled out his police notebook, and politely asked if Tex and I could each autograph it in the margins.
The whole experience lasted 25 minutes. and when it was over, several hundred Chinese children, a handful of parents, and a police officer were all in possession of the autographs of two American tourists.  You can view a video of the fiasco here.
Like most small agricultural towns, Taihe’s development is centered around a permanent market located down the center of its main street.  This is where agricultural middlemen (generally not the farmers themselves) come to sell their goods, and townspeople come to shop for groceries.  While it’s mostly foodstuffs changing hands in the market itself, storefronts along the street sell kitchen supplies, T-shirts and slacks, umbrellas, bicycle parts, remanufactured car altenators, funeral garments, sandals, maternity clothing, toothbrushes, PCV piping, or any other household objects needed to carry on daily life in Taihe.
As we had been noticing throughout Anhui, chicken was definitely the meat of choice in Taihe.
While we did also see a fair share of pork, beef, lamb, and fish, chicken was still king.  I am no expert on agriculture so correct me if I’m wrong, but my best guess was that this was a reflection on space constraints.  Anhui contains some of the most densely populated farmland in the world, and chickens generally have a higher yield per acre than would pigs or cattle.
Another pleasant culinary surprise we found in Taihe was some of the tastiest peanuts Tex and I had ever consumed. While peanuts are common in most parts of China, their taste and texture vary widely by region.  I am no penutologist either, but I would posit this probably has something to do with the soil and climate.  This particular batch, sold at the market, was fried up with hot chilis.  They could also be purchased salted or plain.
Well, I’m not sure exactly what you would call this, but Tex and I both settled on referring to it as the “Chinese Jell-O Mold.”  As we marveled at this strange concoction, passers-by solicited their opinions to us as well, as this is not a common item in most necks of the Middle Kingdom.  One told us, “It’s delicious you should try it.”  Another cautioned, “You wouldn’t like it.  It’s disgusting.  Stay away.”
More street snacks.  These candied fruits on a stick however are no local specialty, and can be bought just about anywhere in China.  Their Chinese name always seems to escape me somehow.
Like major cities, small towns across China have also seen rapid population growth as many agriculturalists (or more accurately the children of agriculturalists) have left the farm to seek jobs in town.  The incipient residential developments often contain wide avenues such as these, which are developed to accommodate rural China’s burgeoning automobile culture.
The older, more central parts of small towns, which were laid out long before automobile traffic became common in the 1990s, generally look more like this.  Enough space between buildings for a person or two to walk through is usually enough.
This of course does not mean the occasional car won’t wiggle its way through streets such as this, but in a town like Taihe, most traffic on such streets is still pedestrian or bicycle.
Another frequent site in small towns, caged barn yard animals on wheels.  Small Chinese towns always have a way of getting me nostalgic about locally based agriculture.  When you eat in a place like Taihe, you can be pretty certain that the vegetables and rice that you are eating were all probably pulled out of the ground within a fifteen mile radius and 48 hour time frame of where you are eating them.  Same goes for meat, which was probably a living, breathing, eating animal less than 24 hours before it made its way to your plate.  This pattern of freshness and local eating remains the norm in areas of the world like Taihe which by in large do not have access to modern refridgeration techniques.
People who follow this blog regularly probably know I have a soft spot for Chinese propaganda slogans.  Not that I necessarily agree with all of them, nor that I even agree with the concept of displaying vague statements in awkward public meeting spots, but nonetheless I find this form of rhetoric worth some examination.  This flavor of sign is extremely common in rural China.  It reads:

Stabilize, lower the birth rate

Accelerate the construction of the New Countryside

The enforcement of China’s Family Planning Policy has always been trickier in rural areas than in cities, mainly because the rural lifestyle favors having additional children, economically speaking.  This, combined with lower levels of education, more traditional thinking, and generally higher levels of corruption, have led many rural families to continue the practice of exceeding statutory birth limits.  The government, in its rhetoric to combat this practice, often takes the angle that a lower birth rate is necessary for the future development of the country.

As is frequent in many Chinese municipalities large and small, the oldest street in Taihe is generally occupied by the lower class, and thus is rather dirty and and not well-kept.  Chinese people can be quite sensitive of this and as Tex and I strolled down this street snapping pictures at sites like these, we had several locals tell us to stop taking pictures.  “You should take pictures of something beautiful, not this.  You are just doing this to show your American friends how poor and dirty our town is,” they would say.  Which I guess, in effect, is true to some extent.At this juncture we also had an extremely difficult time convincing them that we were not journalists on assignment.  “This place is not for tourists.  You are wasting your time here.  There is nothing to see,” we were told multiple times.
Well not all the town was dirty and poor, especially not the government buildings, such as this, the “Taihe People’s Courthouse.”
I’ve always maintained that one major area of city planning where China could really use some work is that of waste management.  Sites such as these were common in Taihe.
school children on their way to class

A homeless man relaxes on the steps of a storefront on 古街 (Ancient Street), the oldest street in Taihe, with most of its buildings dating back to the late Qing Dynasty.
Another shot of “Ancient Street.”  In China, buildings this old (over 100 years) are ironically quite uncommon.  Due to relatively short cycles of architecture, wars, limited construction materials, general turbulence, and razing to make room for new developments, I would maintain there are probably more 100-year-old buildings in Chicago than there are in any city in China.
What I really love about places like Taihe is the feeling of isolation you get.  Sure, they have the internet, and sure people are traveling to and from Fuyang, and to Hefei, and from there to Beijing and Shanghai, but the sense of isolation and consolidation with the small town and the its surrounding agriculture is something I never feel in big cities.

During our walk we even encountered a church.
more private houses
The outskirts of small Chinese towns are typically surrounded by scattered houses such as these, where the inhabitants continue to farm, but are close enough to town center that they can stay active in town life as well.
another one of the main drags of Taihe

Here’s another common site in the countryside: small children wandering around unsupervised, and often playing with sharp, pointy, and/or flammable objects.
For retirees, their days are often passed playing and spectating at card and board games which take place out in the open public.
Games range from regional versions of poker…
…to mah jongg, which is also highly regional, with different parts of the country each playing with a slightly different rule set.  Regardless of any difference in rules, money almost always exchanges hands.
For our last meal in Taihe, Tex and I decided to sample 太和板面 (Taihe board noodles).  And no, that is not a typo, these are 板面 not 拌面, with 板 implying a board or flat surface, which represents the shape of the noodle.  We had seen signs for 太和板面 all over Taihe, and even a few in Fuyang, and without much other choice in dining options (Tiahe like Fuyang, has hardly any restaurants), we decided to check it out. The restaurant consisted of a single room with an open kitchen (see above) and two tables set up for customers.  The noodles cost 4 RMB (about 60 cents USD) a bowl, and the owner warned us that they were “extremely spicy.”
Regardless of the sticky table and the rusty bowls, the meal was magnificent, and concurs with my past experiences that many of my all-time favorite meals in the Middle Kingdom have also been some of the most economical.  The noodles came bathed in a broth, which as the owner had warned, was extremely spicy.  They were surrounded by green veggies, bits of wood ear mushroom, and a few scattered morsels of lamb ribs.  After Tex and I had both cleared our plates, and sat staring at one another for a moment, panting, as our mouths recovered from the inferno of hot pepper. We both agreed that this had been our favorite meal in Anhui thus far.

After three and a half days in Anhui, we were finding ourselves noticeably exhausted by dust in the air, the loogies on the ground, and the cigarette smoke in emenating through poorly-ventilated indoor spaces.  While these are all common nuissances, and easily blocked out by most veterans of the Middle Kingdom, their magnitude throughout Anhui was turned up to a notch which left us longing for the relative peace and tranquility of the coast.  Our clothes and backpacks were covered in dust, our lungs were choking in dust and smoke, and our digestive tracts were longing for a break from street food.  It was time to wrap up the Anhui adventure and head back to the “modern” world.  We took the mini-bus back to Fuyang, and from there boarded the overnight train to Nanjing.  More to come as we wrap up the adventure.

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