Sunday, July 27, 2008

For Food Fanatics

And alliteration advocates...

I have eaten many dishes, some fantastic, some scary, some hot, and all delicious.

Some fantastic: You've already seen that glorious clay pot [ed: Glorious clay pot? I must be channeling Lynn Rossetto Casper...], but the hotel's kitchen has produced something else wonderful for me. I've discovered their "traditional club sandwich." It had a fried egg on it, at about the third layer of the second layer, and egg foo young, like a multi-layer St. Paul sandwich! It's a bit of home! Sorry, but no picture.

Some scary: Monday night I ate at the Red Passion (yes, haha, it's actually a very upscale restaurant) with the auditors, and we had one dish called Begger's Chicken. It was whole chicken wrapped in a thick layer of lotus leaves, and then a hard pastry shell, pictured here near the end of the meal. (Yes, those are French fries in the background. I don't know who ordered them, but they were darn good. The ketchup was extra sweet. Also, I didn't take that picture.) The interesting thing about that chicken is that every time I stuck my chopsticks into that mass of food, for the first four takes, I came out w/a surprise!

The first time I ventured in, I didn't know how to approach it, so I just retrieved a piece of lotus leaf and started ruminating. I was informed that that was not for eating. OK! Too late. It was rather fibrous. My second attempt I thought I was getting some shredded meat, but actually it was a mass of dark meaty strings, which I know from previous experience eating similar food is actually like, well, intestines. The third time I went in, I thought I had seized on a nice big lump of dark meat, but as I pulled it back to my plate, I recognized a beak, and vacant eye sockets!! The shock repulsed me from the table, and the baked head fell to my plate.

I gathered myself and tried once again to pull out another piece of meat, but that bird's bony red face was staring at me, so I had to put it back on the platter, and cover it with a napkin. Yes, everyone at the table was having a hearty snicker at my expense.

Some hot: Very hot. Two nights ago I had the very special honor of being the first měiguó rén invited by the A-B IT staff to dine at a particular restaurant that specializes in Szechuan cuisine! Dude, I mean just look at all the peppers on this plate! The dark parts are salty, hot pieces of fish. That picture is from the very beginning of the meal. There were MANY more dishes, and almost every one seemed to be 50% red peppers. I was actually buzzing from all the peppers... and the many bottles of Bud. They also said I am the only American they have seen eat the dan dan noodle. Of course, they did order everything on the most mild setting, but trust me it was hot! They even gave me a Chinese name. That meal was very special for me.

After that meal we all went for foot massages. I've never had a foot massage, and I can be pretty sure I'll never get to have one like that again! For the first phase, they brought in foot baths with tiny African fish in them (don't know the species) that looked like minnows. The fish eat your feet! Serious! I have pictures, but, of course, the stupid laptop won't read them. I'll have to wait to get home to download them using my Linux box. That was pretty fun though. The massage therapists were amazed at how white I am, but of course my friends were too polite to tell me that at the time. I learned later. I had a feeling it was either that or my apparently soft feet which couldn't really handle the full force of the massage.

The next morning (yesterday) Jarod Li took me to Hu Bu Xiang street, which has a whole block of small eateries that specialize in different types of traditional Chinese breakfast food. We had three different types of dumplings (dim sum) that I had never tried before, a sticky rice pancake that is considered local food, and some rice noodles in a very peppery gravy. I've very sorry that I have no pictures of that either, because my computer won't read those from the card for some reason. I even have a picture of two cooks making soup dumplings and one of another cook making a gigantic sticky rice pancake.

I also had the best cup of green tea I've ever had in my life. The IT department was given a large bag of homegrown, home processed, completely organic green tea, and it was amazing! I can at least provide a picture of that. Also that day they introduced me to a fruit I've never had called longan (lóngyǎn), which actually means dragon's eye. You can see why from the picture. You just pierce the hard outside with your fingernail, and it peels easily. They tasted a bit different from grapes, but that is the closest comparison. They were very good!

Yesterday Jarod also took me to a tea market. At a Chinese tea market, you are invited to sit down and sample the various types of tea before buying. The shopkeeper prepares the teas for you, and it is an extensive process that includes warming the cups with hot water, pouring out the first cup, and then finally serving the tea in small Chinese tea cups. You are given many many cups. I finally purchased about 1/8 kilo of the best oolong tea I've ever tasted. It had a slightly sweet aftertaste which was surprising and delicious. There was nothing in it but the brewed liquor from the leaves.

My work is nearly complete here, and it went very well, to my substantial relief. Tomorrow I leave for Shanghai.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The rest of the weekend

Saturday night I was anxious to go out and see the Wuhan nightlife, so I asked the doorman, Kenny*, where he recommended, and the waitress inside, and between the two of them I had a few ideas.

It took me a little while to build up the nerve to explore this radically foreign city alone at night, but I'm glad I finally did. About two blocks north of the hotel, I came to a corner where people were crowded around, and as I got closer, I realized there were about 10 musicians there playing traditional Chinese music!! What an unexpected treat! There were about 4 or 5 men playing the erhu, one or two playing wooden flutes, one was playing a large percussion instrument that looked like a yangqin, I think a couple of small drums, and there were three singers, one woman and two men, and they took turns singing from song to song. IT WAS AWESOME!

It seemed like a neighborhood thing, but I mean these people were really talented and organized. I guess they've been doing it for many years. I tried my best to kind of hide behind some people, because who knows what kind of awkward hilarity would await me if I didn't. Of course, after the first song, the man who was MC said something to the microphone and everyone turned around and smiled at me expectantly. Haha! I just smiled like an idiot and waved. A man next to me said "they are welcoming you," so I meekly mumbled thank you in Mandarin.

I stuck around for about 3 songs and then headed on down Taibei Lu, which was my original mission. I didn't find much on Taibei Lu, which was the waitress's recommendation, that looked inviting, so then I took a cab to Jianghan Lu, which was Kenny's recommendation, and that was pretty exciting, like Nanjing Lu in Shanghai, but, like Nanjing Lu, it was all shopping, not clubs, so that was kind of a wasted trip too. Now I wish I had just stayed on that corner with the locals listening to the live music.

Really, what a dumbass I am. That was a priceless experience that you will not find on a tourist map, and nobody will tell you about (if they even know) because the young people here I told about it looked at me like I had antlers growing out of my head, like "you like traditional Chinese music??" Well, I mean how could I? I've never heard it before! There I was, reaping the benefits of having the gall to explore Wuhan at night alone, experiencing a bit of culture that could very well become extinct over the next 20 years, as China discovers the trappings of globalism and modern society, but I just had to break off and go find "nightlife." I hope dearly they will be out next Saturday night. I will bring a camera and not be shy.

Sunday I went to the Hubei Fine Art Museum, and then the Hubei Provincial Museum. Both were fine museums, but the Hubei Provincial Museum was huge, spanning like five buildings, and packed with cultural treasures. I got to see the Sword of Goujian, the most famous Chinese sword of all (2500 years old and not a speck of tarnish)!! Evidently it is one of the most important museums in China. I tried my best to see all of it, but after walking so much the day before, I was ready to collapse. Really, you need about three days to explore that museum. I think I gave it about 3 hours (that was after about 2 at the Fine Art Museum), and then just tried to find the Sword of Goujian.

The funny part is it took me like another hour to find that darn sword, but I wasn't leaving until I saw it. I started asking museum security at like every corner, "Jian zai nar?" (The sword is where?). They would point and say something back to me, and I would move a little closer. Building to building, room by room, I moved closer. Finally I found it, and the quest actually pulled me through every single exhibit that I hadn't seen already anyway. Ha!

*Kenny is his "English name," which is something most young people take for themselves to make doing business with English speakers easier. They often pick names that make you think 'why?' I also met his classmate, also a doorman, name of Jordan, "like Michael Jordan." They are both undergraduate students at a local university for hotel management. They are also both fluent English speakers and very eager to ask me questions about America. I appreciate the opportunity to ask them questions about Wuhan and the Chinese language.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

I am tourist! Hear me babble something in broken Mandarin!

So, the secret to getting me up at 6:00 in the morning is simple: just send me to the other side of the planet. I had showered, eaten a leisurely breakfast (French toast and three cups of coffee), researched some places to check out, and hit the street before 8am. Oh man, let me just say first that I used every single bit of Mandarin I know today, and then some. It was pretty fun.

About 1 in every 10 people I passed today just outright stared at me. Last time I was in Wuhan it was a bit unnerving, but this time I was able to pretty much ignore it.

I spent the first couple hours exploring a large swath of the downtown area, and taking pictures. The most interesting discovery was when I came across a huge tea market. The entrance to it was not very obvious, but as I walked through, I realized it occupies about half a block! Inside are dozens of small tea shops specializing in either tea or tea accessories. If I could read Mandarin, I would probably be very happy with myself for discovering it, but instead it's kind of out of reach for me, because there didn't appear to be many English-speaking Wuhanese in there. I may have to get brave to take advantage of it before I leave.

The picture above is from where I very first walked in.

I located the place that I got the Ya Bozi last time (see previous post), but my stomach wasn't up to it at the time, so I just took a picture and noted the location. Then I took a taxi to the Guiyuan Temple. It is a beautiful old Buddhist temple with many altars, statues, and courtyards. I would have a lot more photos of the amazing woodwork there, but unfortunately, the most beautiful rooms prohibited photography.

The second picture is one of the courtyards at the Guiyuan Temple, where people were putting coins into the mouths of the little dragon heads jutting out from that bronze piece.

After that I went across the street to a funky little museum called the Wuhan Chinese Rare Stone Museum. My impression from talking to one of the English speaking employees there is that they obtain the most interesting stones that are excavated during construction, and have made a museum of it. I love museums with weird themes. I had to give it a try. Oh yes, it was interesting. They had some fossil collections in there that seemed to take some liberties. I saw a fossilized head of something that looks like some kind of cow with antlers, but not like any antlers I've ever seen. I suspect someone took some creative liberties with the fossil collection...

I can't resist including at least one picture from that strange museum. What do you think? It was labeled "Cervus Linnaeus."

But they did have some souvenirs unique to Wuhan, so I was told. They are what's called Chrysanthemum Stone pieces, which are black and white stone pieces where the white part is a quartz/calcite aggregate, and the black part is volcanic rock. They are very pretty, but heavy, so I bought just a small bowl.

Next I went by foot to the Wuhan Yangtze River Bridge. Oh man, that was a longer walk than I thought it would be. Then I went below the bridge to Lotus Lake Park, which is a truly beautiful municipal park. Then took a cab back to the hotel for MUCH cheaper than the previous cab... but eh, whatever, the other one was less than $6, so it was still much cheaper than US cabs. From now on I know to just ask for the meter instead of letting the cabbie offer me a flat fee.

Got back to the hotel and ate lunch. Wow, it was awesome. Clay pot rice w/a special sweet Cantonese sausage, chicken, wild mushroom, and some kind of vegetable. Exactly what I needed. I was so moved I took a picture.

Hobbled up to my room to find that they were in the process of installing a new flat panel HD TV in my room. Sweet! Helped them install it, then collapsed on my bed, kicked my shoes off, and watched Gold Medal Ping Pong Tournament. Definitely getting the full Chinese treatment. Love it.

Friday, July 18, 2008

24 Hours Later...

Left the house at 5:15am. Exactly 24 hours later, I was checking into my hotel room in Wuhan. This picture pretty much sums up the last 24 hours of my life. It is the view from gate C53 at Shanghai Pudong International Airpot, as I waited for my third and final flight to Wuhan. As you can see, it's a very nice airport, albeit spacious beyond all reason. I think I must've walked about 2 miles between the time I landed there and when I finally approached that gate.

The taxi ride from the Wuhan airport to the hotel brought back the memories and the fear.

No seatbelts: check.
Broken speedometer so you can't tell if you are in fact approaching the sound barrier: check.
Complete disregard for lines on the road: big fat check-a-roonie, especially in crowded urban areas.

I believe you must be at least a level 20 Zen Master to get a cabbie license in China.

Last time I came to China the road from the Shanghai airport to Shanghai was a gorgeous, lush, carefully planted and maintained road, but the road from the Wuhan airport was not. This time, Wuhan's airport highway also has the landscaping. Really, like 10-15 miles of heavily landscaped median and shoulder. Wuhan's is mostly composed of shrubs and trees, whereas Shanghai's highway had a lot of flowers, but still it puts every American highway I've ever seen that connects an airport to shame. I tried to get a picture of it, but... eh, the pictures don't really do it justice. Mixed in were what I think were pink azaleas and white yuccas, but they don't show up in this picture.

Now I have two days to get situated before work on Monday.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Leaving St. Louis

There's a full moon out tonight. That can mean only one thing: it is time that I board the sky ship and fly east... far east. I am off to the land of Qin, the Middle Kingdom. I will span the great Yangtze River to the land peopled by the Han, and I will behold the ancient civilization that brought paper, gunpowder, printing, and the compass to the world, and I will eat delicious spicy duck's neck (yes folks, it's that good).

I will install many hard drives and migrate a multitude of data from one medium to another, and lo: I will take pictures.

And when the moon has nearly waned, I will fly to the river's delta, to the city Above the Sea: that towering cosmopolis that is home to the most wondrous and the most ancient of structures, and lo: there will be many dumplings eaten.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


I was going through my old high school papers, and I found the lyrics to two old folk tunes. I have little idea where they came from. I think they were handed to me in either a high school or college writing class. Those papers are a little mixed up, so it could've been either. They are remarkable pieces for their pure Appalachian sound. I will transcribe them here as they're written on these pieces of paper.


Shoulder up yer gun and whistle up yer dog
Shoulder up yer gun and whistle up yer dog
Goin' up the holler gonna catch a ground hog... Groundhog

Down in the hole all thick and stout (x2)
Cut me a stick and twist him out...

Skin that whistle pig and tan his hide
Make the best bootlace you ever tied

Cut him up in pieces and put him on to boil
Smell him cooking a country mile

Up comes Vester from behind the plow
I want some whistle pig I want it now

Here comes Sal with a snicker and a grin
Groundhog grease all over her chin


There's a wild hog in yonder woods, diddle-o-down, diddle-o-day
There's a wild hog in yonder woods, diddle-o-down-o-day
There's a wild hog in yonder woods, cut his throat and drink his blood
Cut him down, cut him down, kill him if you can

There's a wild hog in yonder mast...
Cutting his way through oak and ash...

Bangum will you hunt him right...
Sword and pistol by your side...

Bangum hunted day and night...
Swore he'd take that wild boar's life...

Bangum went to the wild boar's den...
Found the bones of a thousand men...

Fought three hours on that day...
The wild hog shied and he ran away...

Bangum threw his wee pen knife...
That was the end of the wild hog's life...

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Tom Waits

I got to see Tom Waits play in St. Louis on Thursday, June 26th, 2008. I was seated just far enough away that I couldn't make out the details of his face, but I could see him just fine. Even more importantly, I could hear him.

It was awesome.

The show opened with Tom standing on a small riser, only about 5'x5'. The main limelight shined down on him while the rest of the stage was dark. He started singing Lucinda, from the Orphans album, as the lights came up on the rest of the band. Then he would lift his leg up in air and STOMP down on the riser, causing a puff of dust to rise. STOMP again! The dust would surround him and float away.

The musicians were all consummate professionals. One man for horns (many, many horns), an upright base player, a keyboardist (except when Tom played the piano), and, of course, Casey Waits on percussion. The show was very well rehearsed, and all the songs were played completely differently than they are on the albums. And they were BETTER!

How often does it happen, where a musician plays your favorite song live, completely different from the way you know it, and you actually like it more? For me, not often. But seriously, Get Behind the Mule was far and away the best song of the night, and it was swinging, like Waits was channeling Buddy Holly. Turns out the reviewer in agrees with me on Get Behind the Mule being the best.

His cover of Way Down in a Hole was second best, I think, and so strange from the album version, I didn't even realize what song it was until well into it. The venue, the Fabulous Fox Theatre, was gorgeous, and it was the first time I had ever been there.

At one point I was just sitting there, barely able to contain myself, thinking man, I am sitting in a room watching Tom Waits put on an amazing show. I've been waiting for about 14 years for this. In fact, it was 14 years ago that Damian introduced me to Tom Waits. The greatest thing about this concert? Damian was there too, with Kate, just married, all the way from North Kakalaka!

The cover of 16 Shells from a 30-06 was good, and you know it would be, with all the crazy percussion needed. Tom would step over to the corner of his soapbox and kick down on a drum pedal with a hard mallet that would connect with a brake drum, or something, to make one of the bell sounds. So cool.

Oh man, the very last song he covered, the last song of the encore, with Tom at the piano, was Innocent when you Dream. After he sang the first verse, he said "Sing with me!" The whole theater was singing along. Tom was like "That's really beautiful." It was.

The set list was (in case that article goes away some day):

1. "Lucinda" ("Orphans")
2. "Way Down in the Hole" ("Frank’s Wild Years)
3. "Falling Down" ("Big Time")
4. "Black Market Baby" ("Mule Variations")
5. "All The World Is Green" ("Blood Money")
6. "Heigh-Ho" (Orphans")
7. "Get Behind The Mule" ("Mule Variations")
8. "Day After Tomorrow" ("Real Gone")
9. "Cemetery Polka" ("Rain Dogs")
10. "Hang Down Your Head" (Rain Dogs")
11. "Lucky Day" ("Black Rider")
12. "Johnsburg, Illinois" (Swordfishtrombones")
13. "Lost In The Harbour ("Alice" soundtrack)
14. "Make It Rain ("Real Gone")
15. "Lie To Me" (Orphans)
16. "The Other Side Of The World" (Night On Earth" soundtrack)
17. "Singapore ("Rain Dogs")
18. "Dirt In The Ground" (Bone Machine")
19. "What’s He Building In There?" ("Mule Variations")
20. "16 Shells From A Thirty-Ought-Six ("Swordfishtrombones")
21. "Rain Dog" ("Rain Dogs")


22. "Goin’ Out West" ("Bone Machine")
23. "Anywhere I Lay My Head" ("Rain Dogs")
24. "Innocent When You Dream" ("Frank’s Wild Years")