Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Visiting Sichuan: Emeishan and Chengdu

Far too long ago, I wrote an update about visiting the really-quite-impressive Buddha statues of Leshan and Jiajiang. Really, the Big Buddha of Leshan was the impetus for the trip - my sister was visiting China, saw a picture of the Buddha, and knew she wanted to see that. However I was also happy to have a look at Sichuan while there - I have a lot of friends from Chengdu and Sichuan, and they've really talked it up a lot, and Chengdu in particular has an excellent reputation.

I'll start with Emeishan, or Emei Mountain, which is one of the famous Buddhist Mountains of China, dotted with ancient temples, there's also tribes of monkeys to contend with. My sister, a former resident of India, was a lot less excited about that latter prospect than I was. But truth be told, I never even saw a monkey, I only heard them off in the distance. It's because I mostly ended up hiking around the lower reaches of the mountain, rather than doing the normal tourist thing and taking a two and a half hour trip to the top and then walking down. If it sounds like I missed out on scenic views, Sichuan's climate was pretty much on par for the course, and was too foggy to see all that much.

I almost planned for a multi-day hike and I'm glad I didn't. Generally the mountain views weren't much, and so for the most part what I saw was this:

It's a non-descript picture, but it was a non-descript environment, a whole lot of the trail looked like that. The main thing to notice is there's a whole bunch of concrete stairs going up and down, and most of the trail involved walking up and down concrete stairs, which really killed the legs. Hikes in China are all paved over like this, it's a lot less fun than being in California, where I got really into Bay Area Hiker last time I was around, and went on a number of amazing dirt paths through redwoods and so forth:

There were Buddhist temples, although they weren't of ancient construction and were of the cheesy tourist-oriented kind, something like smaller but better versions of Jing'an Temple. Many of them had restaurants serving simple Chinese-Buddhist-style (vegan) meals, I had one and it was pretty good. As corny as they could be, the temples were a colorful break from the hiking.


I ended my short trip in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. It's famous for the spicy food and for the beautiful women. However, my sister's vegetarian and we didn't get the chance to try the normal local eating options, and we looked around and I swear the women didn't really look much different than in Shanghai. Later I heard that women there are considered more beautiful mainly because they're whiter.

Perhaps my expectation were too high, but I just didn't think much of Chengdu. My favorite was Wenshu Temple, which had a lot of older locals just lazing about doing their thing. I also ran across a Tibetan area with a decent Tibetan restaurant. However for the most part it felt like a standard, poorly-constructed Chinese city, with the tourist sites being expensive and uninteresting. I'm told that it's a great city to live in and enjoy a laid-back atmosphere, but as a tourist just there for a couple days, I admit I didn't much care for it. Also, as a city of four million people without a subway or even elevated highways, the traffic at rush hour was about the worst I've ever seen in my life, and I've had a daily commute from Oakland to Palo Alto! I don't want to end on a sour note, so here's a picture of a nice old-style gateway:

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Decent Western Food in Jing'an

I love talking bad about the foreigner food in Shanghai. That’s just what I do. OK, the food has it coming; it’s none of it very good, and really I don’t think there’s any foreign restaurants that would make it if they were based back in San Francisco. But partially I just like complaining about restaurants, and really I could whine on and one about even my favorites.

But I’m going to take a break from the trend with this update, and talk about a couple Western Restaurants that, while not perfect, I’ll give a qualified recommendation. They’re both reasonably tasty, reasonably inexpensive restaurants that are worth casual visits.

The first is Munchies, a American Restaurant in the modus of Shanghai’s other American Restaurants, where in addition to a psychedelic Pac-Man logo, there’s a menu full of hamburgers and hot dogs. I mean I guess back in America I’d eat hamburgers and hot dogs every once in a while, like at ballgames or on the 4th of July, but it’s a little strange how it’s the staple of nearly every single American Restaurant in Shanghai. But I have given both of them a try at Munchies, and they’re both good renditions.

It wins points for having a side of a decent cole slaw (or French Fries or various salads), but really hamburgers are boring, who cares. Most interesting is that they have Cincinnati Chili. I’ve actually never heard of that before, and was only vaguely aware of the idea. It’s a Midwestern variation of Chili, with cinnamon and all-spice, and not any heat at all. Instead of dumping it on rice like anyone sensible human being, they dump it on spaghetti! It also comes in different 'specials', where maybe they’ll also dump cheese or onions or beans on the spaghetti. This is a five-way special:

Except for the hamburgers the portions are more of a snack than a meal, and the desserts are just cake and ice cream. Regardless, go for the chili, and if any gentle readers can say a word about whether it’s authentic, that would be appreciated. Actually I’d recommend searching some Cincinnati Chili down, even for those in the US - Amazon has mix packets of Skyline Chili, maybe they’re worth it?

Munchies is on 974 Wuding Lu, near Changde Lu, about a ten minute walk north of Jing'an Si Station. Meals cost somewhere around 50 kuai per person, about $7.50, and it's open from 10 until late every day.

The other place I'll mention here is Wagas, a chain with numerous locations wherever white people congregate. I tend towards the branch on Jiaozhou Lu and Xinzha Lu, about a five minute walk north of Jing'an. I’ve known about Wagas for years, but just as an annoying Café. OK I’m not a café person and so I can’t claim expertise, and their black coffee does seem pretty decent. However the several times I had gone before, it was over-run with office-away-from-office people, all on their computers and loudly talking business on their cellphones. Since I go to cafes to chat or study, it’s kind of not the atmosphere I go for.

However I found out that after six at night they have a deal where their pseudo-Italian dishes get priced down to 33 or 40 kuai, that’s about five or six dollars. It’s a pretty good deal: some of the pastas are really excellent, I haven't had them all, but my favorite has been a pasta with pumpkin, spinach, and feta cheese. Additionally the meals come with a small salad and a few pieces of very plain bread.

It’s not all perfect: Wagas’ atmposphere just isn’t as relaxed as a café should be, and I guess the computer nearby my food shows I’m guilty of treating Wagas as an office, as well. It’s also strictly a restaurant to visit by yourself, and between the bad atmosphere and the dog-bowl-like serving plate, I’d strongly recommend taking someone out to even Saizeriya, before Wagas.

Also, a simple can of soda costs 20 kuai, the equivalent of three dollars, which makes sense for a café but is kind of absurd if you’re there for inexpensive pasta. A few of the dishes are horrible, one pasta dish is literally noodles, thin chicken strips, and a quarter of a lemon for you to squeeze on top. So, order with a degree of caution, and things generally aren’t perfect, but on the other hand, excellent 33 kuai pastas make it all worthwhile.

I’ll end this post with a semi-apology. I have very strong feelings about what’s happening in Xinjiang, and I feel a little silly writing a China blog and talking about a couple semi-competent Western Restaurants. Adding on to the absurdity is that this blog is censored in China, and my counter-censorship service is also being censored, and I'm doing weird run-arounds to get this blog posted.

However from the beginning I’ve given myself rules for this blog, it’s not a personal account of the awesome party I went to over the weekend, it’s non-political, and so forth. I'd surely break the rule if I had a wonderfully informed opinion or any special information, or perhaps if I went to a particularly bouncing party over the weekend, but that's not the case. I do encourage everyone to inform themselves about what’s happening, even if it’s just a quick look over Wikipedia entry on Xinjiang.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Other Side of the Great Firewall

Blogger and Blogspot are still blocked within China, which really should motivate me to transfer this entire blog over to a private server, but really has just motivated me to sign up for Freedur's free one-month trial. It's a service that essentially re-routes my browser through Texas, so I can use websites that aren't normally viewable from within China. It's actually very simple and easy to use, and I'd recommend it, although a friend of mine gave good marks to the similar Hotspot Shield, which is free. Update 9/1/2009 - The company was stolen by an employee, and the original company now offers the Freedur service for free.

Just as how from within China computers can't normally view Youtube or Blogspot, computers from within the US are blocked from many of China's vast resources of online pirated music & video. Granted, just walking down the street there's plenty of bootleg DVDs available, but most of the people I know have moved over to online bootlegs in the last few years. And even at Internet Cafes, a whole lot of people are just there to watch movies on the 17" screens...maybe they go for all the cigarette smoke...

As shown up top though, it's very easy to turn the Freedur proxy service on or off, if it's off then one can see the same web connection as any other user in China. For example, I can go to Baidu, China's most popular Internet browser (maybe 50% more popular than Google), and with a couple of clicks come to this:

Which is a list of Michael Jackson's most popular songs. From within China, clicking on "Billie Jean" brings up a list of songs that can be listened to or downloaded:

Where yeah, clicking on "listen" brings up the song at full quality, it even has karaoke lyrics alongside!

Meanwhile, going over to the American side of the Great Firewall of China, suddenly Baidu says (in Chinese) that it can't find any search results...

It's not just topical results, like Michael Jackson or Billie Jean. Looking up "Beatles" from China's most popular search engine will yield 20,000 MP3s, while looking up "Beatles" from America will yield none.

It's not just music, movies and TV shows are often bootlegged on Chinese video-sharing sites, such as youku. Looking up the popular ongoing HBO show "True Blood" on youku shows a number of results, the first of which is the entire show, up to last week:

Just like Youtube, it's a simple click to watch the episode, with an hour-long episode fit into a single clip. Quality is somewhere between Youtube's normal quality, and Youtube's HD quality.

Whereas clicking on the video from the American side of the Great Firewall of China brings up this:

This blocking is being done by the companies in question, not any American government task force. I imagine it's to keep off the radar of the large companies and their lawyers, in nations where IP rights are actually enforced.

I can't claim innocent; I and probably every other person in China watches bootleg TV and movies. In fact it's essentially impossible to buy legitimate versions of most DVDs or CDs, and even seemingly legitimate stores sell pirated videos.

On the other hand, I really think that massive bootlegging largely explains why Mainland China's movies and music are universally so very very awful.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

From the Roof of the Post Office

The International Post Office is the Volvo of Shanghai's colonial architecture: boxy but good. While it's actually a very large and well-known building, on the corner of Sichuan Lu and the Suzhou River, just about every single picture of it focuses on one particularly attractive corner, with a clock and some bronze statues:

Not so long ago I blogged about the street it's on, Sichuan Lu, and I've had a number of posts about the area. Suffice it to say that the post office is in an interesting area and on an interesting street, and while the Postal Museum may not in itself be a highlight to Shanghai, it's definitely worth making the Museum part of a larger wandering. I'd also like to give special credit to Delongguan Xiaolongbao. While this branch of the chain lacks much class, it's truly excellent xiaolongbao, and just a few minute's walk away. It's also interesting walking around all the older buildings and seeing the occasional river traffic, with the Post Office on the far right:

I won't go into much detail about the Museum itself. It's located one floor up and it's crazy extensive. I'm no stamp collector, but there were a couple interesting bits: a short take on the very early history of delivered messages, from thousands of years ago, and then a collection of Communist era stamps. They often looked like Chinese Propaganda Posters, only done in miniature. However a whole lot of the museum was given to old Postmasters or 1930s company tennis teams or what have you. Anyway it's all free and the boring bits are quite skippable. At the end strangely enough there's even an old railroad car and suspended propeller plane.

The best part is that after the museum, there's an elevator to the rooftop terrace. There's actually not much to the rooftop itself, except for some astroturf and a number of the worst Engrish signs in Shanghai, all collected in one place:

There's a beautiful sweeping view over both the Bund and Lujiazui. The pollution when I took this picture turned the distance into some kind of watercolor:

While it's also possible to turn and look over at Sichuan Lu and a more typical slice of Shanghai:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum

The Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum is another tourist-oriented place that I think is worth dropping by, even for those who live in this fair city. It's located on 79 Fenyang Lu & Taiyuan Lu, which is near-ish to the Changshu Lu subway station. It's in a pleasant area with a lot of musical instrument stores nearby. The building and grounds are themselves very pleasant - it's a large mansion originally built in 1905 for a French government official, and it sort of resembles a miniature White House:

Really it's a small complex of buildings, and I gather it acts as some government-sponsored master class for teachers and apprentices of traditional Chinese handicrafts. Most of the mansion is dedicated towards display rooms, where these arts are shown. It's mostly what one would expect, for example a number of examples of carved jade:

There's also carved wood, and to honest I found those examples much more impressive, some of them were unbelievably finely detailed. This wasn't the most impressive example, but it's always fun to see artwork featuring angry proletariat:

I think I've put off talking about one big negative to the whole place too long: it doubled as a well-done shopping center. A lot of the art had price tags attached, and there was a huge gift store downstairs. That said, it was easy to ignore the price tags, there was absolutely no pressure to buy anything, and really it seemed like a good if not-cheap place to buy those kind of handicrafts. It certainly didn't have the feel of one of the (too many) places where they take tour groups and try to hustle them into buying corny souvenirs.

Moving on, there were many other varieties of Chinese handicrafts, they didn't get as large displays but they were also interesting. One favorite was Gu embroidery, where the artist takes a transparent gauze and then "paints" a scene onto the gauze using extremely fine silk threads. This isn't the best photograph, but the best examples shined with a beautiful sheen to them:

Another examples is figurines made out of dough. Actually there was also an artist there working on these when I visited, it was fascinating seeing someone work with what's essentially playdough to make actual art:

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Visiting Sichuan: Leshan & Jiajiang

I've long wanted to visit Sichuan, if for no other reason than because I have a number of friends from the area, and they kept talking it up! I ended up making a very quick trip out, and while I wasn't entirely impressed I'll start out on a high note by talking about some carved Buddhas.

OK that maybe sound horribly boring, especially if you happen to not be me, but the Leshan seated Buddha gets a special pass for being two hundred fifty feet high - the largest Buddha in the world, ever since the Taliban blew up the standing Buddhas carved out of a cliff-side, not so long ago. It really is an impressive sight, especially as one can walk right up to and alongside the Buddha, which also happens to show the sense of scale. Those people on the far side look tiny!

One doesn't just walk around up top, there's also a thin path down, right alongside the Buddha. When I went it was pleasant except for a heavy fog (which is on par for Sichuan), but I've heard it can get horrifically crowded, and there were even Disneyland-style barriers set up, so the lines would have to snake left and right. I could just skip right past them. Anyway it's interesting to go down the cliff, there's all sorts of different views. The Buddha faces a river, and it's also possible to get a view from a boat or a nearby sand bar.

Leshan is a couple hours away from Chengdu, and it's a no-horse town where I get the idea you just have a look at the Buddha and then go on somewhere else. Jiajiang is much the same, only worse. Jiajiang's one claim to fame, for a tourist anyway, is the Thousand Buddha cliffs. That said, all the Buddhas are pretty impressive. Therels really hundreds, or perhaps even a literal thousand Buddas tucked away:

The site was probably a lot more impressive forty or fifty years ago, before the Cultural Revolution came to town. About half the Buddhas had their head knocked of, and I wouldn't be surprised if their were other Buddhas that were destroyed altogether:

Additionally, these Buddhas were really all there were to the area. OK, I don't want to complain too much. If the site was located in Shanghai, it would be a must-visit. On the other hand, Jiajiang itself is out of the way, and then from Jiajiang Bus Station it was a weird local bus ride, where after driving a few blocks, everybody got out of the bus and walked a couple blocks over and changed buses. I'd recommend a taxi, on the other hand it's probably impossible to catch a taxi from the cliffs, so it's best to hire one - no idea how much that should cost. Additionally, although Jiajiang tries to play up the whole cliffs area as a sprawling tourist area, really the cliffs is it. I have nothing more to say so I'll end this with a picture of a flower my sister took: