Sunday, June 28, 2009

Picture of the Day: Wudaokou hole-in-the-wall

There're lots of greasy spoon restaurants and dinettes in Beijing (if you can call them that), but this Korean restaurant, off the Wudaokou stop on the subway, comes as close to a genuine, New York-style hole-in-the-wall as I've seen in Beijing:

You sit at counters facing outside, with the kitchen literally right there.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Picture of the Day: Joy City in Xidan

Absolutely humongous, with floor levels (11 in all) named "Dating," "Sexy" and "Sporty"...

Friday, June 26, 2009

Links of the day: Poetry in Iran, Great Wall, Lao Qiang, women

Gonna go all over the board for today's edition:

POLITICS: From James Fallows's blog: how the Chinese view Iran and foreigners in general

POETRY: An anonymous poem from Iran

PERSONAL: Kevin Retiz's Great Wall narrative, part 2

MUSIC: A must-see band, Lao Qiang (HT to Fallows's blog)

LITERATURE: From the literary magazine Exquisite Corpse:

What is the worst part about being a woman?

“Because it is foolish. It is very foolish to be wrong.”

MISCELLANEOUS: And finally, not sure how to classify this, but... (borderline NSFW)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

More pictures from the Great Wall

Leftovers from Monday's post

More pictures via my two Facebook albums, here and here, and from Alicia, Aaron and Kevin. Kevin also has a write-up over at his blog.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Great Wall: Jiankou

I camped at the Jiankou ("Arrow's Nock") section of the Great Wall over the weekend and took about 800 pictures, and looking back I'm amazed all over again: there's not one bad shot in the batch. The views are simply that spectacular. Before I blabber on, just take a look:

What's unique about Jiankou -- other than the fact that three sections of the Wall connect here, Mutianyu to the east and Huanghua to the west, and that most professional photographs of the Wall are taken at this spot -- is it's completely devoid of tourists. In fact, there are signs in the village that say, "This part of the Wall is not open to the public." Just recently a couple hikers died at Jiankou, so our group of 10 were told twice to not go up there. Our guides, however, knew the deal: the villagers merely felt compelled to say "Don't go" so that they would not be liable in case something did happen. In actuality they didn't really care, though one lady was kind enough to say, as we breezed by and away from civilization, to "Be careful."

The accident, far from discouraging visitors, may have actually increased them. We encountered four other groups of hikers, including a pair that woke us at 3:30 a.m. with a stirring rendition of a nationalistic Chinese song. Our guides told us was they had never seen more than 10 people on a trip before, and for good reason: Jiankou is for experienced hikers, as there are steep sky stairs and loose rocks all over. But a little caution is worth the experience: treading over stones virtually untouched -- at least by construction cranes and souvenir vendors -- since Ming Dynasty workers placed them here a thousand years back.

I don't usually use this site for promotions, so you'll excuse me for saying this one time that if you want a great experience, go to Back Country Beijing and contact Aaron and Lincoln. Weekend getaways start at a very affordable price (RMB 400 to 600, depending on the size of the group), with tents and other camping gear, transportation and three meals all included. Yes, Aaron and Lincoln actually tote your tent up to the site with you, and -- if you ask nicely -- supply all the red wine you can drink. Take my word for it, when you're up there, even Great Wall wine is drinkable.

UPDATE: Lot more pictures here.

UPDATE 2: Video (and some more words) here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Boat bar

Upon getting asked what the bar is called, a friend just said, "It's the bar that is a boat."

Well, duh, I suppose.

It's a perfect little bar, really. You follow the canal just north of the Pizza Hut at Dongzhimen Wai until you cross a big street and then you're there. It's a place that you'd call "can't miss."

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A June 4 story from Tiananmen Square

Security was tight and police were everywhere, but in the end you had to know this was still China, where the cops are oafs and the army filled with wiry thin young men you feel sorry for more than anything. (Most of them look like they could use a good joke.) And despite all you've heard about authoritarianism and corruption and whatever new crap some English tabloid has dredged up, you have to know that only in China can one actually talk his way out of a quandary with just a sense of deference and politeness.

Here's what happened: the security guards waved Hsing-Hui and I through, but Alicia was held up for bag check, a standard procedure. As I was waiting, I did a very foolish thing by turning around and aiming my point-and-click camera at the security gate, which is like the ones you see at airports. Nothing happened until a couple minutes later, when the three of us were walking away. Two entrance guards -- a man and a woman, both fairly young -- jogged up to us and asked, in English, for us to wait. They saluted us for some reason.

"Please come with us," the man said.

We retraced our steps back to the security gate, where another man with a prominent orange canker sore patch on his lower lip asked if I could understand Mandarin. His partner then said I took a picture without their permission and asked to see my camera. I obliged and -- because I didn't really want a picture of the security check anyway -- deleted that photo.

The man with the canker asked for our passports. I had mine because by some stroke of luck I was graced by the angel of foresight earlier in the day. Alicia, who's Cantonese, showed them her Hong Kong ID. Hsing-hui, however, came up empty-handed.

"Then you can't come in," the officer said.

We looked at each other with the sort of look one wears while trying to figure out whether to be confused or bemused.

"Please leave," he said again.

We asked if a driver's license was okay.

"No, it's not. Please leave."

We asked why not.

"Say you were in Chicago trying to get into the country. What if you had no passport? Would you be allowed to pass?"

I raised an eyebrow. "That's not exactly the same thing," I mumbled.

Hsing-hui was ready to go, but I lingered, suspecting this cop hadn't completely been brainwashed by whatever powers brought him here. He looked in his mid- to late-30s, possibly a little older, probably a father. Something about the way he spoke to us -- that hint of a grin, as if he were amused by our confusion -- told me he had a head about him, or put another way, a brain.

I waited till after I made a phone call (to another friend to warn her to bring her passport -- she didn't pick up). I briefly considered grabbing the gals and sneaking away -- the canker man was now talking to a driver and seemed almost hoping we'd take this opportunity to disappear into the square. I thought about what I could say to him, how I might lie and say we were students, or we "just wanted to see the Square," we're just tourists, we arrived after much difficulty.... And then I approached.

"We're going to walk around a bit," I said.

"Sightsee some more, eh?" he said. Again, that hint of a grin. "So she'll wait for you here?"

He meant Hsing-hui, my passport-less friend. This was the moment of truth.

"Can you let her come with us?" I asked in a tone slathered with deference.

He hesitated. This was my opening.

"Look, we don't have anything, just a camera," I said. "Rang ta lai ba, hao ma?" Let her come, will you?

He grunted a chuckle, or chuckled a grunt. "Ah, okay," he said. "Go ahead."

I thanked him, as did Hsing-hui. No one asked to see any more of my pictures the rest of the day.

Pictures from 6/4 at Tiananmen

I'll have more to say about the day later, but for now check out this NY Times article (just about accurate... the "plainclothes officers, easily identifiable by their similar shirts," were actually a combination of police and civilians from neighborhood watch groups -- you could tell because of their age) and some more photos...

Security was tight...

I was told the Malaysia flags were for some Malaysian head of state who was visiting.

The vans to the far right are police wagons.

You were required to show your passport (very unusual) at the security checkpoints, but only if you were foreign or, in my case (I was with two friends), speaking English. (Best as I could tell, Chinese visitors were waved through without having to show their ID cards, but that may not have been the case at every checkpoint.)

Not sure if the guy with the umbrella is a plainclothes officer or not...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Who is johnsmith9876?

An unabashed China defender / Time Asia blog contributor (see here), described as "essential to the survival of this blog, and perhaps many other blogs that discuss China issues." Or just a corporal in China's 50 Cent Army?

The Time blog lost a significant chunk of its readers after it got blocked in China -- a counterproductive move by the PRC censors, since the only people who read the blog (or at least commented), it seemed, were zealous Chinese nationals living within China -- but it's good to see johnsmith9876 keeping it at. A brave one-handed clapper alone in a forest of falling trees.

Yu Hua on June 4

I know I'm late with this, but I was in Qingdao over Dragon Boat Festival and only now saw this NY Times editorial by one of China's modern literary giants, Yu Hua. I excerpt liberally because it's worth it:

THIS is the first time I am writing about Tiananmen Square. I am telling my story now because 20 years later — the anniversary is June 4 — two facts have become more apparent. The first is that the Tiananmen pro-democracy protests amounted to a one-time release of the Chinese people’s political passions, later replaced by a zeal for making money. The second is that after the summer of 1989 the incident vanished from the Chinese news media. As a result, few young Chinese know anything about it.

But most important of all, I realize now that the spring of 1989 was the only time I fully understood the words “the people.” Those words have little meaning in China today.

“The people,” or renmin, is one of the first phrases I learned to read and write. I knew our country was called “the People’s Republic of China.” Chairman Mao told us to “serve the people.” The most important paper was People’s Daily. “Since 1949, the people are the masters,” we learned to say.

In China today, it seems only officials have “the people” on their lips. New vocabulary has sprouted up — netizens, stock traders, fund holders, celebrity fans, migrant laborers and so on — slicing into smaller pieces the already faded concept of “the people.”

Now I'm going to go buy Brothers.