Archive for Travel

Thick into paper

One last excerpt from my book–I posted briefly about this experience, but not at all about the details…and it was pretty cool.

Along with gunpowder, clocks, and noodles, the Chinese are said to have invented paper. As is the case with many similar generalizations, a great deal of truth actually stands behind that notion: while the Mediterranean world was still drawing on papyrus and etching with styluses on wax tablets and the Incas were conveying messages with knotted ropes, the Chinese had a fifteen-hundred-year head start writing on the cheap and versatile medium of paper—and even printing on it.

Less than an hour southwest of Hangzhou, fifteen minutes shy of the city of Fuyang, an organization still produces paper the same way it has been made for millennia in the region just south of the Yangtze River, and prints hand-bound books of ancient texts on it in the traditional manner. I’ve always been fascinated by the artifacts of writing and printing, and so I jumped at the chance to visit this ancient papermaking village, as the place is known, and see what’s behind this historically and artistically important art form.

A guide led me around the village, which is laid out in the style of the Ming Dynasty (although it has certainly been reconstructed to some degree), and she walked me through the process of making paper from pulp to poetry. The first steps take place outside the village itself, in the bamboo forests up on the hills that line the banks of the nearby Fuchun River. There, sturdy men fell clumps of bamboo and hack it into serviceable pieces, after which it is transported to the village to be transformed. This is one of the few ways in which the modern process diverges from the ancient one: today trucks carry the bamboo from the forests to the village, but in years past it was carried on the backs of animals, or of men, and sometimes it was floated down the river.

Once it arrives at the village, machines of antique construction reduce the bamboo to a woody pulp. This pulp is then transferred into giant vats, which are filled to the top with cold water. The entire production line is located in buildings sheltered by roofs but open in the front to the elements, which makes this a chilling process even in early fall, let alone in winter. Men with chapped but cold-hardened hands wield giant frames over the vats, on which is suspended a fine metal netting. They lower these wooden frames into the freezing vats slowly, rest them beneath the surface of the pulpy water for a moment, and carefully lift them back up and behind them, all in one smooth motion. The guide insisted I try this for myself, and, though I feigned disinterest, I was secretly glad to have the chance to imitate these actions—it had seemed too easy to be interesting when I watched the men at work, but dipping wire into water and coming up with paper was much more difficult than it appeared.

Once the pulp rests perfectly on the netting stretched across the frame, the artisan places it on a pile until dozens of layers have accumulated. It takes twenty or more layers to make one of these outsized sheets of paper. The sheets then make their way to the next station, where women work actively to dry them evenly. The worker takes a sheet and sticks it onto a slate-black wall, which is heated from the inside by a roaring furnace. She brushes down the length of the sheet until the color starts to change from muddy gray to a brighter white. When the paper is dry, she stacks it by the door for easy access. From there it is taken to be cut down to the proper size and moved over to the next set of small buildings, where the printers keep their shop.

There, using ancient wooden blocks of characters borrowed from museums and archives, women work to print traditional texts by China’s renowned historians and beloved poets. Each block of writing is enough to print a page, and the wooden blocks, black from use over the centuries, must be coated perfectly by brush with thick ink in order to create a good print. Again, I was encouraged to have a go myself at what seemed like a mindless task, using a block engraved with a drawing of a phoenix, and again I proved myself foolish. The lines that resulted on my paper were splotchy in some regions and barely visible in others, the head was a giant blur of ink, and black specks dotted the white background. I carefully placed my embarrassment in my bag and moved on to the shop. It was months before I threw away the travesty—for a while it served as a nice reminder that things aren’t always as easy as they look, especially when the thing in question is the hard work of someone else.

The other souvenir I acquired, however, is something to cherish. In the wood-beamed shop at the end of the production line, I browsed through the shelves of books bound in blue or yellow cloth until I found the perfect gift for my friend, a casual scholar of classical Chinese poetry: an edition of the collected works of the Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, constructed from scratch entirely on site and bound accordion-style, in the traditional fashion. Looking at the gorgeous volumes of lyrical observations, military histories, and philosophical ruminations, it was hard to believe that these had all started out as the cold mixture of pulp and water into which I’d dipped my hands just a while before. It seemed impossible that every page was made of dozens of thin sheets interlaced and compressed, that each character of every poem was printed with the care required not to smudge the fine calligraphy, that these books had begun as bamboo groves up on the hills behind the village, and, by extension, as ideas in the heads of long-dead writers.

Posted by on March 1st, 2006

Wahaha…t a Brand!

The Wahaha brand is one of the most famous in China. Its bottled water can be found in every grocery store and pushcart, and it’s because of that ubiquity—and the catchy name—that foreign travelers have long regarded Wahaha as their water of choice on hot days spent sightseeing or for seemingly endless train rides. The Wahaha brand, and the story behind it, goes far beyond water, however, as I learned in a visit to its headquarters in an industrial park on the outskirts of Hangzhou early one Saturday morning.

I pulled up to the front entrance, ducked through the autumn drizzle, and was met by Frances Song, the English Assistant to the General Manager. She had come to work on the weekend solely to lead me on a tour of the showrooms and bottling plant, but despite the inconvenience she seemed eager to show me around. We began in the coolest room of all—basically it was a private convenience store stocked solely with Wahaha products—refrigerated cases wrapped around half the room, displays on the history of the company decorated the other walls, and in the center was a macro-sized monument to Wahaha’s best known product other than water: Future Cola (or, in Chinese, Feichang Kele, which translates literally to Extreme Cola).

Future Cola was the result of an attempt by Wahaha in the 1998 to compete with the world-dominating brands we know and love (or hate) as Coke and Pepsi. Over the past almost-decade, the Chinese upstart has performed admirably, although it still places third to these two American brands throughout most of China. In rural areas, unsurprisingly, it is much more popular than in the cities, where the cachet of a foreign label can carry products quite far.

Even more intriguing than the story of Future Cola, however, is the story of the Wahaha company itself—and of its founder, Zong Qinghong. In 1987, Zong, along with two retired schoolteachers, began selling milk products and popsicles at a school store, having received a government loan to fund its start-up operations. The group soon decided to produce and sell nutritional drinks as a way of benefiting the students’ health. The company’s success and its lofty health-minded motives resulted in its first big expansion four years later: with Hangzhou government support, they acquired the bulky, state-owned Hangzhou Canned Food Product Company and changed its name to the Hangzhou Wahaha Group. Wahaha itself is an onomatopoetic representation of a baby’s laughter, as mimicked in a children’s folk song.

By 1996, Wahaha had attained such heights that the French multinational Group Danone agreed to form subsidiaries with Wahaha without requiring the use of its own brand; this partnership is still in effect, and Danone controls 30% of the entire company. In 2003, Wahaha’s income totaled ¥10.23 billion (USD1.24 billion), accounting for 15.6% of China’s total beverage production. Today, Wahaha products are on sale in France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, and the United States.

Still, all these new facts I learned at the factory didn’t intrigue me as much as the chance to visit the bottling plant itself. From a windowed hallway that runs the length of the hangar-sized floor, I watched bottles of red tea whizzing by on conveyor belts and in various ingenious contraptions. There really is nothing like a factory tour to get a girl thinking about China’s economic prowess and future potential for world domination. If reverse-globalization means Wahaha instead of Poland Springs for sale back in New York, I’m all for it. Still, I think I’ll keep my Diet Coke.

Posted by on February 14th, 2006

A pilgrimage to Tianzhu

The Tianzhu temples caught my eye despite being out of the way—not only were they hidden at the end of a list of Hangzhou’s attractions, their names buttressed by little description or practical information, but their actual position is a bit off the beaten track as well. Never one to listen to a list or let geographic inconvenience deter me, however, I was certain that my time in Hangzhou wouldn’t be complete without a jaunt out past Lingyin Temple to Tianzhu Road, where it seems as if gods have set three temples like jewels into the mountainside. It was only an inkling I had, based on years of experience that have taught me to value my own instincts over the recommendations of any tourist board or guide book. Still, I’ve also learned that sometimes travelers avoid places for a reason, so when intuition sends me off into the tourist wilderness, where locals roam free, impervious to attack from the point-and-shooting hordes, I try not to let my expectations run away with me.

As I hiked up the road toward the topmost temple one perfect autumn morning, I reveled in the fullness of the forest on either side, a verdant surprise that already justified the cab fare from the city center. So absent from my home in Beijing, a dry, gray, and dusty city that seems to sprawl almost to the grasslands of Mongolia, the lushness of this scenery overwhelmed me. To find a place still embraced by nature is sadly rare in urban China, yet unspoiled green tracts surround Hangzhou, a fitting frame for the artful expanse of water at its heart. A few cars whizzed close to me on the paved mountain road, but I paid them no mind, wrapped up as I was in my meditation on unchecked development and the cultural and political challenges of conservation.

When I reached Faxi Si, the Buddhist abbey at the top, however, after a walk of three-quarters of an hour or so, my train of thought turned more personally meditative. Should I buy a bundle of incense from one of the women selling candles at the temple gate to attempt the proper ritual once inside? Or would it be better to fumble around in my relative ignorance, taking photographs and sticking out like the foreign devil they likely assumed I was, but also not pretending to knowledge or beliefs I didn’t really possess?

I ruled that since my intentions were in the right place—I wanted to try to fit in with the few faithful adherents I saw milling around and gain a sense of how they experienced the place, rather than imposing the interpretations of my own mindset on it—I should do what pilgrims do and buy some scent to burn as communication with the heavens. The few extra kuai my purchase would add to the vendor’s pocket couldn’t hurt either, a certainty reinforced by the speed with which she stopped counting the beads on her mala, the Buddhist rosary she draped around her wrist to help her focus on the mouthed but silent recitations of her mantras, to tell me how much my attempt at partial participation was going to cost me.

It was, then, clutching eight powdery, fuchsia sticks in my hand, which itself would remain stained pink for much of the day, that I passed through the threshold of the temple. In the main courtyard, uphill from the gate, I took in the gold and crimson buildings devoted to the lord of compassion, the Buddha whom the Chinese call Guanyin, a female deity known in Tibet and India as Avalokitesvara.

The name of this trio of temples itself evokes that spiritual place of origin: Tianzhu, which literally translates as Master of Heaven, is the ancient Chinese name for India, from which Buddhism trekked over the Himalayas more than 2,000 years ago. The religion spread over the whole of China, eventually nestling its way into Hangzhou and putting down roots so strong that, despite the passing of millennia and the cultural crusades of the past century, the people of this city still climb Tianzhu Road to reach these temples, even if most of those who pass by the old women selling joss sticks are themselves grandmothers, or at least mothers, or daughters.

I felt like a daughter of Hangzhou myself as I clumsily imitated the motions of the older women in the center of the courtyard. I stuck my incense into a large bronze vessel filled with fire, until the sticks smoldered and then smoked at their rounded tips. The pilgrims bowed at the waist toward the temple at the top of the steps, shook the spicy smoke up into the air with both hands in front of them, and turned to their right, repeating the motions until their prayers were ascending to all four corners of the sky. With my thin magenta wands, I followed them as fluidly as possible, repeated their movements and tried to ingratiate my mind with their thoughts. I was not just performing empty gesticulations there on the stage before an audience of these believers and their deities, but I couldn’t fill my mind with the same resonances I knew these gestures held for them.

Like my unwitting (though seemingly not unwilling) tutors, I pushed my still-smoking joss sticks down into a bed of ash behind the censer and entered the convent’s main hall, where the Buddhas of the past and future flanked their present-minded avatar. Standing before these magnificent symbols, given form as gorgeous statues, I reflected on my history, the past that had brought me before this pacific triad; I considered my present, allowed my breath to slow until my mind could not detect it, and worked to still my mind so it wouldn’t even try; and I contemplated moving on into the future, following my thoughts of the life ahead of me into the experience of living it.

When I stumbled back out into the crisp air of early fall, which pixelates the sunlight to sharpen and saturate life as if it were a photo, I knew I couldn’t hope to understand the experience of those visitors to which the temple and its inhabitants are more accustomed. Still, I’d had revelations of my own, and I meditated on them as I made my way along the side of the road to the next bead in Tianzhu’s mala. Buddhist monks say that the mind is as random and thoughts as spontaneous as a monkey jumping through the branches of a tree. As I meandered down the mountain, however, my mind was focused and my thoughts purposeful, the monkey sitting still upon a single branch, peeling a banana.

Posted by on February 13th, 2006

Christmas comes to Hangzhou

These santas were milling about by West Lake on Saturday morning. I love how they’re wearing their mustaches on top of their noses and their beards over their mouths–charming!

Posted by on December 13th, 2005

More street food in Hangzhou

On my last day here the weather finally warmed up a bit again, and I decided to go for a long walk around the part of the city I’ve enjoyed most: the streets around historic Hefang Lu. This time, I encountered still more interesting food for sale, both for immediate consumption and for taking home. This included a lane of street vendors twenty booths or so long on either side selling exclusively food that had been dried, particularly seafood, fruit, and funguses. The smell wasn’t great, but the intrigue-factor was so compelling I strolled up and down three or four times looking for the most unusual items (and the coolest-looking). I also found a number of the dessert pastries for which Hangzhou is famous and which I hadn’t really discovered before. I didn’t try any of them, because that’s not the sort of thing I tend to like, but I did get photos of both “happy pairs” and “wu hill pastries,” as well as of some strange gloopy balls, likely made of dough, that came out of bamboo steamers to wiggle around on platters and show off their strangely colored coatings–I think the pink ones must be the most popular: I saw three or four people buying them straight out of the steamer, but couldn’t find even one sitting out with the other pre-made ones for sale. Oh well. I think these pictures should suffice.

Posted by on December 12th, 2005

The world’s favorite beverage

Tea is the most popular drink in the world, according to one of those amorphous statistics that float out there in the quip ether. From the vantage point of China, and in particular Hangzhou, it would be hard to doubt that claim. The city is famous throughout China for its renowned Longjing tea, a variety of green tea named for Hangzhou’s Dragon Well and grown around its outskirts.

I ventured out to Meijiawu, one of the most picturesque of the tea-growing villages, where I happened upon some gorgeous fields of tea framed by autumnal mountains. I sat outside at a run-down teahouse on the side of the road so I could enjoy the view, and I lucked out in my choice of establishments out of the many, seemingly indistinguishable cha guan that lined the street.

This teahouse was the home of a really friendly (and well behaved) dog named Huan Huan, and her owners, some equally friendly Chinese around my age. They all (the people and the dog) sat with me as I drank my scalding-hot tea and ate some delicious spinach and tofu soup and the absolute best rendition I’ve ever had of one of my favorite Chinese dishes–xihongshi jidan, which is basically eggs scrambled with tomatoes, but which can transport the soul if it’s done well, as it was at this scuffed teahouse fifteen kilometers from the city center.

A few days earlier, I had the chance to experience a very different species of teahouse, a fancy place done up in the truest Hangzhou style located right off of Yanan Lu, the main commercial thoroughfare of the city. L. had told me I was going to have a meeting with his boss, H., at a teahouse, but I had no clue what I was in for and dreaded a really boring morning sipping tea and prattling on about my research with only L. to interpret, since I figured that H. wouldn’t possibly speak English. Well, his vocabulary wasn’t great, but we were able to communicate more than adequately, with L. pitching in to help in the odd moments where his facility was needed. Not only was H. a pretty interesting guy, having graduated from BeiDa (Peking University) and currently planning on getting his masters in public administration in the States next year, but the teahouse itself was incredible.

My first glance at the menu was misleading–I was surprised that a cup of tea would cost 40-60 kuai anywhere in China ($5-7.50), and no food at all appeared on the menu. After a few minutes, though, I realized that not only did that cover a pot of tea with unlimited refills on hot water, plus one change of leaves, but it also included as much food as we wanted from a huge buffet in the main room, filled with fruits, nuts, meats, and various cold dishes, as well as more elaborate items from the carts being wheeled around the building, like soups, dumplings, noodles, rice, and more. In our three-and-a-half hours there, we had: peanuts, pistachios, oranges, grapes, raisins, pomelos, dragon eyes (longyanin Chinese, a fruit related to the lychee, I think, but in any case weird and delicious…small brown spheres that you peel to uncover the soft, slightly sweet, translucent flesh within…you have to watch out for the large pits in the middle, though), wolfberries, cherry tomatoes, chicken feet (no, I didn’t try them), fried noodles, fried rice, soup with dumplings, weird sweet soup that I also didn’t try, surprisingly tasty little cakes, and these are just the things I can remember and could identify. According to L., it’s popular among locals to come to a teahouse like this on weekends or holidays in the morning, order a cup of tea, and sit all day drinking and eating and practicing the finely honed art of good conversation. That’s a cultural practice I could adopt!

Posted by on December 12th, 2005

Goodbye and thanks for all the weird food

Sorry it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but I’ve been really busy–not just finishing up my research in Hangzhou, but also designing this new site. The most exciting part (besides my impending flights back to Beijing tomorrow and to New York on Thursday) is that I’ve finally gotten this photo album plugin to work. This site now has an awesome (if I do say so myself) photo page. To check it out, click on “Photos” at the top of this page…then check out any of the albums I’ve uploaded so far. More are on their way as I upload old photos over the next couple of weeks. Even cooler is that the albums each have a great built-in slideshow feature. Just click “View as slideshow” on the album’s page to watch one.

I have a number of posts lined up about how I’ve spent the past two weeks here in Hangzhou, and I promise I’ll have them all up before I leave Beijing. Some might even follow tonight.

Posted by on December 11th, 2005

A village visit

After my interview with the Fuyang Ribao reporter, I finally headed to what had been my intended destination for the day–Longmen (Dragon Gate) Village–an ancient town 10 kilometers outside the city. The town is in a state of stunning decay, Ming and Qing dynasty buildings and archways with faded characters crumble over narrow streets, populated by well kempt cats, scraggly dogs, pig-tailed children, and weathered grandparents, hunched over on stools stringing plastic badminton racquets with neon strings–the local cottage industry, I guess.

One familial clan dominates, the descendants of a man named Sun Quan, who was a king during the Wuyue Kingdom. Around 95% of the town’s population even today bears his surname, Sun, and a line of descent parallel to that running through Longmen Village was responsible for the production of China’s Republican hero, Sun Zhongshan, better known to English speakers as Sun Yatsen. One of the town’s own favorite sons was Sun Kun, who isn’t that interesting except for the fact that he built ships for one of the most intriguing characters in Chinese history–and my own personal favorite–Zheng He, the eunuch from Xinjiang who captained a fleet of Ming Dynasty treasure ships throughout Southeast Asia all the way to India.

Despite its semi-illustrious history, Longmen Village today is a shell of its past, albeit a beautiful one. In open courtyards, 400-year-old furniture sits under overhangs, unpreserved and unprotected against the bottoms of overexcited tourists, inquisitive youngsters, and jaded locals. My guide to the town, a young, bored Sun descendant, seemed both excessively proud of his family’s long and distinguished narrative and untouched by the splendor and ruin (and the splendor of the ruins) that surround him. The only thing that really lit him up was when he mentioned a number of Chinese TV shows that have been filmed in the town.

Still, walking through this town was an almost mystical experience, especially after all my time in big-city China, a classification under which even this current interlude in (relatively) green, moist, Hangzhou falls. Husked corn dried on the side of a pond, men eating cloud-like dumplings in a small shop called out an invitation for me to try some, the setting sun cast the town into stunning shadow. In all, it was well worth the strangeness of the events that came before it to visit this place, as it is now, and witness such spectacular living ruin.

Posted by on November 26th, 2005

Street food in Hangzhou

Today I happened upon what can only be described as a “snack street” here in Hangzhou. It was off of Hefang Lu, otherwise known as “History Street,” a pedestrian shopping area where old, probably restored, buildings line the street, housing souvenir shops, restaurants and tea houses. I’m still a bit amazed that the city can be full of tourists without there being more than a couple of other foreigners walking around–they’re just all Chinese. There are so many of them (as if I could ever forget that fact of demography)!

The snack street clearly caters to their tastes, while at the same time highlighting the ghastly specialities for which Hangzhou is famous. I saw giant snails, fried sea creatures on a stick (with their shells still attached below the tempura-like crust), chicken feet, pigs’ feet, unidentifiable feet, duck heads complete with bills, skewered giant silkworm pupae, scary stews and porridges, and some more appealing treats (to my tastes, anyway) like black sesame candy, naan-like bread stuffed with pineapple, rou chuan(r)–the Chinese take on shish kebab–and pancakes with noodles and vegetables inside.

I was actually still full from lunch and looking ahead to dinner with L., so I managed not to eat anything myself, although I did buy some of the sesame candy for my room, and I’m sure I’ll return to snack street at least once before I leave. I mean, who could resist?

Posted by on November 21st, 2005

Welcome to West Lake

West Lake is considered the traditional (and official) heart of Hangzhou, and I figured I’d head there first in my attempt to wrap my head around this city as quickly and thoroughly as possible. I had not at all imagined that it would actually be as beautiful as it proved today: I spent over five hours walking around it, interspersed with stops at cafes and visits to just two of the dozens of peripheral sites that surround it. In that time, I only made it halfway around–I think the perimeter is probably about eight or nine miles, if not more. In all the statistics I’ve gathered so far, I’ve only found the area of the lake in square kilometers, which I don’t remember and I’m not about to look up again right now.

I was surprised by the large percentage of the people gathered around the lake who seemed like locals–although it is the middle of November and a weekday to boot. I was one of very few foreign faces in the crowd, certainly, but many of the Chinese just seemed to be living out their daily lives on the lakeshore, and not snapping pictures with goofy expressions and amusing poses like they’d most likely be doing if they were not Hangzhouren.

I’ve posted only my favorites of the many, many photos I took today. With a digital camera, it meant nothing to take over 140 pictures in the course of six or seven hours, and I know that as I spend more time here, I’ll become innoculated to the splendor of this city. I wanted to make sure to capture my original impressions of awe, as I’ve failed to do in most of the places in which I’ve spent long amounts of time (Beijing, and Madrid, and Cuzco, and Salamanca–basically every foreign city in which I’ve spent a month or more).

Posted by on November 16th, 2005