Yellow River of Sorrows

Lanzhou

Earlier spring, we were in Lanzhou, out West, Gansu province, upper reaches of the Yellow River–China’s second longest, after the Yangtze. It is, I read, China’s river of sorrow, for its history of horrific floods, some of history’s deadliest natural disasters.

Taoist fortunetellers, Lanzhou

In a 50-year period between 1887 and 1931, Yellow River floods killed an estimated seven million people, including in epidemics that followed.

Lanzhou’s famous beef noodles

Notoriously, during the second Sino-Japanese War, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists created a man-made Yellow River flood (not here but to the east) to halt the enemy advance, killing perhaps a million Chinese people and no one knows how many Japanese soldiers.

Lanzhou

The floods’ cause (in part) is in the name: the “yellow” is silt, from a fine, easily eroding rock (loess) that collects and raises the river till it spills over. (Loess is finer than sand, carried by wind, mostly quartz, highly subject to erosion.) We called that beige stuff “Gobi sand” and it got in our eyes, packed into our ears, and had to be dumped out of pockets and bags for days. OK, it was sandstorm season. But never have I seen a dustier place than Lanzhou. Not inches of dust, but piles a foot high in the dustpan after people swept. Mounds collecting indoors in room corners, outdoors against buildings, streets.

Lanzhou: Muslim community

The river’s not so “yellow”– more brown. Industrial waste has rendered it (source: UN) unfit for drinking and also for agricultural and even for industrial use.

These inflated sheep carcasses keep afloat rafts that locals and visitors hire (with a driver) for fun, to float along the Yellow’s filthy length. We did not partake. It made me sick to look at them.

This blog has attracted a VERY nice American follower who lives in Langzhou and I apologize, Dave, but in spite of the cool provincial museum (home to the famous, iconic bronze horse, one of the best archaeological treasures, almost thrown into a smelter during the Cultural Revolution), the awesome hand-uplled beef noodles(flavored with cinnamon & star anise as well as ginger and cilantro) and several active temples & mosques, I do not hope to return to Lanzhou.

Old Street, Lanzhou

And the Yellow River, past and present, made me sad.

Mosque-on-a-boat? Yellow River

British School of Beijing Under-13 Basketball in Shanghai

The British School of Beijing’s FOBISSEA squad


By Kenny

Part II of the FOBISSEA (Federation of British International Schools in Southeast Asia) tournament


Day 2: Basketball

The BSB Bears FOBISSEA squad had high expectations of winning basketball due to the fact that we won an Under-12 tournament in Beijing. So we thought it couldn’t be that hard.

Our first game was against Dulwich COLLEGE Beijing (not a college). We didn’t start out very well. They were up 6-0 when we (I) finally scored a point. It was an amazing layup off a rebound. We were then 6-2. Then came our team magic as we scored 8 points. But they were still ahead by 3 points. As we lose the game, 10-13. Very big let down, cause we could’ve beaten this team.

Game 2, the Soul [Seoul] Foreign British School: My coach knew they were a lot better than us. They kept scoring and scoring. Nothing could stop them. They kept pressing, scoring, fouling: their s[e]oul was on fire. But luckily, I scored 4 points – 2 amazing lay ups, to get us, at the half, 10-6 Seoul. But we kept doing down, down & they got even better. By the end of the third it was crazy, they were up 17-9. My coach took me and the rest of the starting lineup out to give other players on our team a chance. We lost that game 25-9.

Game 3, Dulwich College Shanghai (still not a college). They looked scary. They had a ton of tall guys and a ton of small guys. Their starting center — taller than me — did the face off. I won the face off. They start out beating us 4-0 but then my magic comes in, scoring 4 points to get us tied at the end of the first quarter. Then they keep scoring. At one time they were up 10-8. I came in and was dribbling. I got fouled, took the foul shot, and scored. Less than a minute left in the half we were up 11-10 — a good start to that game.

Second half we keep fighting, keep scoring, they keep scoring… It wasn’t good enough. We tried to do fast breaks and tried to drive and score, but it was no use. With a minute left they were up 17-15. We shoot, we miss, game is over. Another loss. But personally I had a good game, scoring 9 points, a career best.

Game 4, the Taipei European School (a school that does not belong in FOBISSEA because it’s not British, it’s European), my coach knew we’d also lose to them. So we played our best knowing we stood no chance. They were scoring three pointers, going in shooting, our defense had trouble coordinating. But we were better on offense, I scored 4 points in the first quarter.

Worst part was, in the whole first half, I got fouled 6 times. Four opportunities to score, 8 free throws — I missed all of them.

Second half we were losing 10-15. My coach knew we did not stand a chance so he took out the whole starting lineup, including me, and let some other players play the last half. We only scored 2 points and we lost to them 23-12.

We had no chance of getting into a medal round. We were fighting for 5th place. We had a lunch and got into the next game against fake Harrow (it’s not the original Harrow, in London). We start the game with a decent lead. I scored 3 points first quarter and finally, I made a foul shot. We play hard. They somehow get ahead of us. By the end of the first half they were up 9-8 but we still knew we had a chance. We started playing well. I scored 7 points that game.

With 30 seconds left we were down 2 points. Then we started fouling them. They don’t make any of the shots, we make the rebound and we dribble up. It’s our last chance. A teammate has the ball, he drives, he shoots… We hear the buzzer, the ball’s in the air…and he misses. We lost that game 18-16.

There was one last game, also against Harrow. Our coach and Harrow’s coach agreed to let the players who hadn’t played that much play.

We tied for fifth.

…To be continued (soccer)

Dazu: Chongqing’s Astonishing Buddha Caves

Walk thru bamboo woods…

It was Kenny’s idea to go

Dazu: ten thousand carvings, “monumental cave complexes” about Buddha, 2 hours outside Chongqing, in Sichuan. They’re not hacked out of mountains, but tucked into natural caves, dripping with jungle plants. It’s laid out, as one scholar notes, like a scroll unfolding, in a horseshoe-shaped valley. Nature is a temple.

Funeral – entering nirvana

The Dazu caves show life nearly 1,000 years ago. To win ordinary people over to Buddhism, the cave sculptures explain Buddha’s compassion with illustrations of motherhood: breastfeeding, a midwife beside a woman ready for birth, and even a carving of a mother moving out of the way where her baby peed in their shared bed. They also show the taming of animals, and the earliest evidence of a gun (a “bombard,” early-1100s).

Dazu escaped the violent frenzies of the Cultural Revolution, maybe because, in southern Sichuan province, buried in dense overgrowth of mountain valleys, the site was hard to access, hidden from harm.

Carved and painted during the Song Dynasty (960-1280), they were funded by a powerful patron. On q quiet, rainy day with no one there, the Buddhas offered themselves for contemplation.

The stories depicted contain Confucian and Taoist elements–indigenous Chinese influences absent from China’s older Buddha caves, which are more Indian, from before Buddhism fully enveloped China. (Unlike the other caves we’ve written about which are strongly influenced by Persian, classical Greek, and other cultures.) Dazu caves, the latest, are also the finest re: delicacy & complexity.

Dazu has been comparatively speaking little studied–through the mid-’00s, only two scholarly works in English. In 2006, USC held a conference, the first ever U.S.-China dialogue on Sichuanese temple-cave art.

In the caves’ renderings of buildings (see the big pic below, top & bottom) — cities, temples, architecture — there’s an unexpected spatial realism. Buildings aren’t frontal but 3-dmensional, comparable to perspective in Renaissance art.

Wheel of life


The university where I lectured on journalism & writing (Southwest) was kind enough to send us in a car, with a team of student caretakers who held me like a frail, old lady! Thanks for being pushy about it, Kenny. He wanted a feeling of completion, since we’ve seen the other great Buddha caves of China. This is the last, and in some ways –the storytelling, the naturalness in the woods, the Chinese-ness, the fine state of preservation and phenomenal artistry — greatest.

Lambie was happy, too.

Dirty Words Football


Chinese soccer fans are big on dirty words. Guoan is Beijing’s soccer team, and national champions, much beloved. Imagine tens of thousands–some small children–screaming this all night: “Guoan [pointing at the field]! Sha bi [pointing at the other side]!” Rough translation: “Guoan fucks them!’ I understand it to literally mean, “Yeah, Guoan! The other side is a stupid vagina!”

The kids have been pleading for Gusan tickets. Great friend Vincent got us tickets to last night’s game vs. Dalian (northern industrial coastal city). They cost about $16.

Note: instead of tossing beach balls in the stands, as at Met games, oh the innocence, here the items of choice for hitting around the stadium are inflated condoms. Guo, by the way, means nation. An means peace.

I don’t know if there’s a history of hooliganism but Dalian fans got their own fenced cage, surrounded by riot police. Riot squads also ringed the field and the sidewalk outside.

My friend of 23 years, Bill Hoffman, joined us, visiting from Ho Chi Minh City where he travels for work. Good to see you, Bill!

Beijing’s Hidden Buddhist Treasures


Recently, we hunted down Beijing’s Western Yellow Temple–Xi Huang Si– squeezed between midtown (N.E. 2nd/3rd Ring Road) high-rises and thoroughfares.
Xi Huang Si is called the best surviving Lamaist (Tibetan Buddhist) structure here, and exquisitely restored. Noted for its white pagoda, it was built in 1782, during the reign of Qing Emperor Gaozong. Not sure how good (?) sources say it holds the personal effects of the sixth Dalai Lama, who died in Beijing. The Manchurian Qing, (as many of the Han and Mongol dynasties before them), loved the Tibetan faith.

Empty, tightly guarded, closed but to the monks we followed in, through a side alley. No sign, just a green patch a square block wide, hidden within the modern city. Anywhere else, it would be a number one sight, guidebook-cover material. But it’s Beijing, so rich in imperial treasures–though they’re hidden, fewer than before, at risk, hard to find, disconnected, surrounded islands nearly choked to death.
Hate the air, the traffic, the wanton destruction, prices, overpopulation, traffic, sprawl, madness, dust, water–it’s still Beijing, unique, unequaled. Home to what feels like a limitless wealth of Chinese cultural treasures. We’re not even halfway through our list of must-see temples.
Though it was closed, our friend and frequent traveling companion, Chinese-American studies professor Kuilan Liu (Kate Liu), charmingly sweet-talked our way in, looping her arm through the guard’s. We don’t know why it’s closed. The pagoda’s superb, complex reliefs are some of the most beautiful we’ve seen, and in mint condition.

Southern China by Ethan

Temple in Old Chongqing

By Ethan

Friday Day 1: Today we left for Hong Kong at 5 in the morning. I could hardly wait. We arrive din Hong Kong at 11:30. WE had lunch at a Yunnanese place but we didn’t know that until after we got our food.

Next we went to the famous escalator and went up the mountain. After that we went down the mountain to find the trolley. We got a little lost so we had to take a taxi to the Peak Tram. The tram goes to the top of the mountain. Here’s a fun fact: the tram has been working for one century. At the top we bought ice cream. It was too bad that we could not see the full view because it was fogged in.

Then we met my mom’s friend from when she was 28 years old and we had Cantonese food.

Saturday Day 2: We woke up and I read. At about 10 o’clock we finally left for the fishing village but at the bus station we had to wait quite a while so we decided to go somewhere else. We spent a little time on the beach. There were some really cool islands with mountains on them. AFter that we went to a pretty small shrine on the beach that had a folklore village god. After that we looked at a town Shek O a bit. Then we left for Stanley Market and looked at a few stalls. Then we had lunch at Stanley Beach Market. I had a MacDaddy hamburger with onion rings. We took a bus back along really steep cliffs.

The bus dropped us off by the harbor so we went to Kowloon. In Kowloon, we did the Chinese Walk of Fame. (The Walk of Fame is a walk on the harbor with stars an din them the name of famous movie stars from Hong Kong.) Then we went to the History Museum. In the History Museum there was an exhibit about the people who used to live in Hong Kong. That night we went out on the water in a ferry to see it lit up. It was really cool.

Sunday Day 3: We woke up and had some dim sum. In the dim sum there was a kind of puffy croissant which inside had lots of melted cheese and it was delicious. Then we went to a temple and saw some cool Taoist gods. Then we went to a mall that was in an old building (Western Market). Then we took a train to Guangzhou, a city in Guangdong that my mom’s work colleague teaches at. When we got there it was dinner time so we had dinner with one of the professors (aka my mom’s work colleague). We had a big feast. Then we went to bed at the university hotel.

Monday Day 4: A student picked us up and took us to Xiamien Island and I have a little joke: Lets go have some ramien in Xiamien. Ramien is how you say ramen in Chinese. Xiamien Island has a lot of old European consulates and estates. We saw some 5-year old girls practicing a kind of a dance. Then we played ping pong with a real kind of coach and don’t tell my mom, I had some Coca Cola. That night we walked to a beautiful restaurant in the jungle and had another huge feast and it was good.

Tuesday Day 5: We woke up and did the breakfast routine except this time we left for Chongqing. When we got to Chongqing it was already lunchtime so we went to a very good Chinese food place and had a very good lunch with my mom’s friend. My mom thought I was drinking whiskey when I was only drinking water. After lunch my mom had to do a lecture so me and my brother played ping pong with some students. One of them is better than the professional Chinese players. Soon it was dinner time. We had dinner at the same place we had lunch and then we took a tour on the side of the river (Jialing and Yangtze) at night.

Wednesday Day 6: We woke up and had breakfast. Then we went to 宝顶(Baodingshan), Buddha caves where a monk carved lots of Buddhas. The Boadingshan grottoes were the latest grottoes to be made in China. They are about 800 years old. It is really easy to see the detail in the carvings’ faces. The caves are in the mountains, there’s lots of bamboo growing.

Next we had lunch. Then my mom had a short lecture at Southwest University. I played ping pong with my brother and some students. Soon after we had hot pot for dinner. I liked it. Then my mom lectured again and here I am writing this in the hotel.

Thursday Day 7: We woke up and had breakfast then we went to Chongqing old town in the rain. In Chongqing old town there’s a temple that has a pagoda. Me and my brother climbed it. On each floor there’s a bell. We rung the bell but only on one floor was there actually a ringer and it wasn’t tied to a rope, it was just leaning against a wall so you had to hold it up but it was surprisingly light.

Next my mom had yet another lecture. While my mom was lecturing, me and my brother payed the Miniclip game “Deep Freeze.” Next we had a 17-course rushed meal, emphasis on rushed.
Then we went to the building that’s built on a hill so even when you’re on the 12th floor you’re still on the ground.

Then we flew home to Beijing.
The End

Hong Kong Rocks


This post is completely emotional and off-the-cuff. I just can’t hold it back. This place is just so damn beautiful. I realize there are downtrodden sections and tons and tons I missed but I couldn’t help but be blown away by the natural beauty of this setting…
…like San Francisco, like Istanbul, where water meets mountains — in this case of bright, jungle green — and the press is FREE and the food is CLEAN and many of the people aren’t traumatized by recent history and the subway isn’t so crazy big the same station’s four entrances could be a mile apart. Sorry!!

We rode a double-decker tram with Jake — thanks, Jake!!!

There’s a reason U.S. officials in China get combat pay. China is hard. Hong Kong’s Cantonese culture is part of NY and feels a lot like home. Same with the smell of the sea. It feels so good to see a headline about the dissident Cheng Guangchen splashed boldly across the South China Morning Post, the main paper’s, front page. It’s so good that food isn’t being sold in the gutter beside a dog pooping and peeing. I saw that the day before we left Beijing, in my neighborhood:

Went to the beach at Shek O, Stanley Market, rode the escalator to the SoHo Midlands and saw Sheung Wan and the Man Po temple, Kowloon promenade, Victoria Harbour by day and night, the Peak Tram, history museum, stayed in Central, dim sum. Lots of rain storms. Just an incredible place.

I’d love to get back here. You hear that, Hong Kong University? I’m talking to you.

We’ll talk the rest of our lives about all the reasons for the disparity, centuries of history, politics, conquest, economics, custom, population, but end of the day, this place is just spectacular and as the train pulled us back into Guangzhou, the Mainland, this afternoon, my heart sank and then sank some more.

No offense to the wonderful university hosting us here or our friends in town. And I know none would be taken, at least not by the Chinese professor who arranged my visit, who told me today she takes the 2-hour train over to HK every time she needs a new supply of baby food for her 2-year-old.