Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Internet Glitch

Weednesday afternoon something happened to my Internet connection, and I became unable to access any websites other than a few portal-like ones, namely Yahoo and Google's news pages (although I couldn't get through on any of the latter's links to newspapers). No e-mail (Yahoo Mail was blocked, although for some reason I could access my secondary Gmail account), no blogging, no New York Times or Chicago Tribune.

It was more of an annoyance than a genuine cause for concern, because I figured that like most such snafus here, it would prove to be temporary. And sure enough, when I returned from my morrning class today, everything seemed normal again. Frequent glitches like this are just an inevitable fact of life here, but it drives home just how tenuous my connection to the outside world is.

Last night I turned down the opportunity to go to Guangzhou for a visit: C***o is teaching a couple of classes there this weekend and asked me if I wanted to come along. I didn't really have much choice: The bus leaves at 11:40, so I'd have to blow off the last half-hour of my Friday-morning class, which I don't think I could do in good conscience (C***o will have to leave her class early as well, but since she's committed to the Guangzhou classes, she's got no other choice).

Maybe it's just as well: I don't know if the hotel where they're putting up C***o is in a convenient section of town, she'll be tied up in classes all day Saturday and Sunday so I'd be on my own, and going there involves a three-hour bus ride that I don't think would be much fun. But I'm probably just rationalizing: Before I learned of the problem with the bus schedule, I'd already snapped up the offer.

Anyway, the weather's turned a bit dreary and blustery (I used my umbrella today for the first time since arriving here, and it's a bit chilly as well — although nothing like what I hear it's been back home), so maybe it'll be a better weekend to stick close to home with my new stack of Dexter DVDs. And if it clears up, maybe I'll head back to Zhuhai and spend the day in Jin Shan Park or perhaps make my first visit to Macau.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Shopping in Zhuhai

I made my weekly shopping trip to Zhuhai on Tuesday instead of Monday this week. The excursion has become routine enough that I didn't even bother to take any pictures this time, instead of exploring, I mostly confined my visit to a few shops that I'd already been to (although I did wander by an intriguing-looking area in Gongbei toward the coast that I hope to investigate next time I'm there).

The main item on my agenda was to pick up an additional memory card for my camera. I've taken well over 600 pictures since I've been here, enough to fill up the 512 megabyte card I'd hastily bought before leaving Chicago. I'd noticed that the underground mall in Gongbei (which I've learned is called Port Plaza) has a section of stands that sell small electronics — mostly cell phones and MP3 players — so I figured I could find camera supplies there.

I'm enough of a Chinese consumer now that I knew to always try out the product before I bought it; good thing, too, because the first two cards I tested didn't work. And I also knew to bargain, which lowered the price from 120 yuen to 90 (about $12) — pretty good for 1 gigabyte.

After that was taken care of, I headed for lunch at the same restaurant I'd dined at last week. I remembered seeing a chicken curry and rice dish there that featured large pieces of potatoes, which I've been having a hankering for and haven't been able to find in the dining hall (I ordered a steam-table item there that looked like it had potatoes, but they turned out to be large pieces of pork fat). As a bonus, the curry was accompanied by slightly undercooked julienned potatoes, a common side dish here.

I then swung by the two Port Plaza DVD stores to take a closer look at their stock. One of them had a nice selection of 1930s foreign films that I hadn't noticed last week — everything from Ozu's first talkies to French features by Marcel Carne — but I'm apprehensive about whether they're subtitled; I'll probably try one out later, when I'm feeling more experimental. This time out, I picked up a couple of box sets of cable TV series. I don't usually try bargaining at mall stores — I figure if there's a price sticker, the amount is pretty well set — but I was feeling cocky after bargaining successfully for the memory card, and since the clerk who was helping me spoke pretty good English, I tried for a minor reduction from 60 yuen each down to 50 ($6.70), which he accepted.

I also picked up a few music DVDs. The Johnny Cash set is fantastic — I watched disc one last night — with clips from his 1969-71 TV show, featuring everyone from George Jones and Bill Monroe to Bob Dylan, Derek and the Dominoes, and Louis Armstrong. The further you are from home, the sweeter roots music sounds.

Surfacing from the underground mall, I strolled through a market area near the one that I photographed last week, where I found the sort of back alley — literally — DVD shop that sells a more limited assortment of discs that are shoddily packaged — they come in a flattened folder rather than a case, and the part-English descriptions of the contents are often amusingly baffling — and notoriously unreliable, but significantly cheaper than the mall stores: only 5 yuen (65 cents) rather than 15. Unfortunately. most of the American movies they carry (about half the stock is Chinese and Korean, with very little chance of those being subtitled) are action or horror movies, which I have no interest in picking up, even at that price. But I did buy these two — I watched Spidey last night — and I'll probably go back when I have more time to browse.

On the way back to the bus stop I decided to drop into a large modern supermarket that had impressed me when I took a quick look at it last week. I only bought a few things: some cleaning supplies, a couple of cans of import beer, a Heineken for 70 cents and an expensive Guinness at $1.20; and a freshly baked crusty baguette. And since James Fallows raved on his blog chronicling his stint in China (thanks to Ben for reminding me to check it out) about the deep-fried peanuts and the peanut butter here, I decided to buy a jar of Jiffy as well as a bag of the nuts. So last night I had my first non-Chinese meal since I've been here: a peanut butter sandwich.

Monday, October 29, 2007

A Day in the Country

Sunday morning I tagged along with C***o and her friends on what I'd been told was going to be simply a trip to a hot springs resort; but I was either insufficiently informed or plans were changed — both often seem to be the case here — because it turned out to be a more more elaborate excursion than I'd anticipated.

Our first stop was Jin Tai Si, a Buddhist temple maybe 10 or 12 miles outside of Zhuhi (or maybe more; my sense of direction failed me all day long, and I've been unable to lay my hands on a map — there seems to be a Chinese cultural antipathy towards using them — to get a sense of my whereabouts).

The temple is a modern recreation of one that had been destroyed; I wasn't told when, but I can only assume it was during the Cultural Revolution. Unlike smaller temples I've been to in the north, which strike me as only existing for the scattering of tourists they attract, this one seems to fulfill a genuine religious purpose; while we were there we witnessed a ceremony with dozens of chanting monks and a large number of visitors participating.

The temple is situated high above a large and scenic reservoir. C***o is flanked by one of her oldest friends, who's teaching at the college in Zhuhai now, and the former student who's been showing us around.

After leaving the temple we drove through the countryside — for how long or in what direction, I have no idea whatsoever — stopping in a small town called Doumen to purchase some fruit.

After driving some more, we stopped in another small town, Lianxi, to stretch our legs. Even though there wasn't anything particularly special about the place, I loved the look of it . . .

. . . especially the homes along the quiet canal that stretched through the town.

I could have spent hours wandering around the town, just shooting simple scenes like this.

We had lunch in a nearby restaurant, chosen so I could sample rustic food. Before the meal, by the way, the custom — especially in rural areas or elsewhere where the sanitation might be even more suspect than usual — is to rinse your chopsticks, bowl, and glassware with the tea that's already on the table; the Chinese have a strong faith in the antiseptic properties of tea. The large blue bowl here is for dumping the germ-laden tea.

Although my presence did draw some interest from the restaurant staff (not from other customers, as we had the place all to ourselves), I wasn't the first laowei they'd ever served: The manager explained that they'd once had a black visitor who remains a source of amazement to this day — He was dark everywhere, she marvelled, except his teeth. So after that, you might say that my own exoticism paled.

The first course was this egg dish (which someone sampled before I could get a pristine shot of it).

It was followed by this bland, starchy vegertable that I've seen frequently (particularly in the dining hall) but can't identify. Do any of my Chinese readers recognize it?

Instead of one large whole fish, we were served a half-dozen smaller ones.

These are river crabs — much harder to come by than the ocean variety, I was told.

These were the first jumbo shrimp that I've been served here — and they tasted every bit as good as they look.

This chicken dish struck me as the most rustic-seeming item: It had the scrawny, stringy texture and intense flavor of fresh-killed poultry, and the dish included every part of the bird, including the feet (well, maybe not the beak — but just because I didn't notice it didn't mean it wasn't there).

After lunch we drove through the countryside some more. I found the rural scenes extraordinary: lush farmlands dotted with small ponds, clusters of tiny homes that look like they date back a century (but some so ramshackle that they didn't look like they'd remain standing another week), and such sights as a massive flock of ducks covering the entire surface of a pond or a huge ox lying in thick black mud to cool itself. At one point we drove down a dirt road where the dust that coated the surrounding trees and plants made the passing scene look like a black-and-white movie.

At the same time, I had to remember that all this was in the environs of Zhuhai, a city that's fast-growing even by China's dizzying standards. We never drove too far before we were confronted with a disheartening sign of how quickly this bucolic scene was likely to change: a cleared patch of former farmland here, a newly built factory there.

If I'd been on my own, I would have been stopping the car every few hundred yards to photograph the sights. The area is such a paradise for a frustrated amateur photographer that I'm hoping someday to hatch a plan wehere I can return to document the region — in detail and at leisure — before it's altogether vanished at the hands of development.

Finally, at close to 4, we arrived at the Ocean Hot Springs Resort. I left my camera in the locker room — I didn't think it was waterproof, and as it turned out, photography was prohibited in the facilities anyway. Too bad, though, because it was a pretty impressive spread. The entrance to the main building, pictured here, only hints at its massive size. Inside, once you purchase your admission in the spacious lobby and pass through the locker rooms, you enter a large multitiered area with numerous mineral-water pools fed by the springs. Off to one side is a hallway with a sauna, steam room, and the Dead Sea Pool, a salt-water bath whose buoyancy lets you float effortlessly.

Outside there's a large pool with a waterfall and grotto that seems patterned after the one at Miami's Fountainbleu Hotel. Nearby are a water slide, a kiddie pool, and a long, narrow pool that's good for swimming abbreviated laps. Past that section lies an assortment of maybe two-dozen small whirlpools, each infused with a different health- or beauty-promoting substance, from Chinese herbs like ginseng to milk, coffee, and red wine (and those who have sampled Chinese wine will agree that this is a far better purpose for it than drinking it). Beyond those are several more small whirlpools that contained the only water that I'd label genuinely hot, like a Japanese ofuro; the others ranged from tepid (the large outdoor pool) to pleasantly warm (the main-building pools).

After taking a dip in each section, we changed from our swimsuits into modified kung-fu outfits and went to a lounge area on the third floor of the main building, where we relaxed on chaises overlooking the outdoor pool and, beyond it, the South China Sea and made a dinner out of the free-with-admission tropical fruit provided to guests.

Once we'd stuffed ourselves we returned to the locker rooms. I'd thought we were going to leave and had even taken a shower when Rongli communicated to me to change back into my swimsuit. We made the circuit of all the pools (except the big outdoor one) again before finally heading for home. We'd stayed at the resort for five hours, which I guess wasn't inordinate considering that it was phenominally expensive by Chinese standards: 168 yuen — over $22! Still, I was surprised that after all that time in the water, my whole body wasn't pruney rather than just my fingers.

Between Saturday's activities in Zhuhai and Sunday's excursion in the country, it was an exhuasting weekend, so I decided to skip my weekly Monday shopping trip to Zhuhai; at any rate, I needed to stay home and write this Thursday's lecture.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

A Pair of Parks

After lunch at Mr. Jeung's hotel Saturday, a former student of C***o's — she got her master's in public administration two years ago and now has a good government job — met us there to show us some of Zhuhi. Our first stop was Jin Shan Park, which consists mainly of a small mountain in the heart of the city (sort of like Mount Royal in Montreal).

More rules. In case it's not legible, #6 forbids that dangerous-sounding "bustup," as well as "hitting the pipe and superstition."

Cigarettes kill. . . and vice versa.

I would have preferred to walk to the top of the mountain to enjoy the scenery, but we opted for the cable car (ski lift, actually) instead.

The peak provides a panoramic view of the city, which looks particularly modern and gleaming from this vantage.

You can take the cable car back down, or — if you're in a hurry — ride a toboggan. . .
. . . which takes a winding path all the way down the mountain. The menfolk chose the toboggan, which was definitely high-speed but — since it hugged the ground and didn't have any steep dips — turned out to be a lot less scary than a roller coaster.

At the bottom was a pleasant pond enjoyed mostly by family groups. . .

. . .where you can envelop your children in a large plastic sphere and cast them upon the waters. . .

. . .in what I guess is a kind of Prisoner theme park.

Leaving Jin Shan, we drove to New Yuan Ming Palace, a 1990s reproduction of a palace in Beijing that was destroyed during the Opium Wars. It's actually a bit less kitschy than it sounds, more like the modern reconstructions of palaces in Japan that were destroyed by fires or earthquakes than a theme park.

The park has other period-looking buildings and other attractions set around a large lake.

Costumed performers provide entertainment on boats, but we arrived just as this one was setting off.

The kitsch apparantly comes at a kiddie park, Lost City, off to one corner of the grounds.

Judging from this bizarre-looking character, the theme park didn't license — or appropriate — any existing properties.

After the huge lunch at Mr. Jeung's, tonight we went for a simple meal of soft tofu, dumplings, and buns at an outdoor cafe at the park.

The evening's entertainment was staged at a large outdoor ampitheatre.

The show, which depicted various Chinese dynasties through music and dance, was a cross between a Chinese costume epic and a Las Vegas revue, reminiscent of the fare seen on the television variety shows here. It also featured (in front of and to the side of the stage) warriors on horseback and cannon fire.

The world-famous drum dance.

Off to the side was another stage — more like a movie set — that featured a martial arts performance complete with flying swordsmen on wires.

The program was to be followed by another, competely different show, but we all felt like we'd seen (more than) enough, so we headed back to campus. But the weekend was only half over; Sunday turned out to be even more interesting, as my next entry will reveal.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Mr。Jeung's Restaurant,Close-Up

Some readers of this blog -- you know who you are -- have requested more coverage of the food I'm enjoying here, with a specific request for close-up photos of some of the dishes. Yesterday's activities made it easy for me to comply, because I enjoyed a sumptuous lunch at the hotel in Zhuhai owned by Ling's old classmate, Mr. Jeung.

The room we dined in was particularly nice, but I only had tie to squeeze off a quick shot of it because we started in on the banquet almost immediately.

Among the diners -- there were ten of us -- were C***o's husband R****i, Mr. Jeung, and Mr. Wong, president of the college. . .

. . .as well as Mrs. Jeung and their daughter Kara, who's majoring in business at a university in Macau.

The order of the courses in a banquet often appears to have little rhyme or reason. For instance, the richest course, this duck liver, was one of the first two dishes served, coming out nearly simultaneously...

. . .with this chicken, which looks relatively simple compared to what was to come but was amazingly favorful.

Two fried dishes followed: This perefctly done fried fish, crunchy with a bit of heat from the peppers on the outside, moist and tender on the inside. . .

. . . .and this rather bland but pleasing fried tofu.

Here's the obligatory but always welcome whole steamed fish.

Instead of the unadorned shrimps that I've been sevred nearly everywhere else, these were stir-fried with an unidentifiable ingredient; it looked sort of like seaweed, but you don't eat it -- it's just for flavor.

Stewed melon.

Some sort of greens (it wouldn't be a banquet here without at least a few dishes I couldn't identify).

Delicious mussels, stir-fried with peppers and other spices; much like the dish I had at the seaside restaurant a few days earlier, but even tastier.

Short ribs.

Ox tails, but prepared differently than I've ever had them before: Lightly battered and fried.

We were given individual cups of a mild fish soup as the meal was winding down (soup here is typically but not always served late in the meal, to aid digestion).

The small, unassuming yellow buns were one of the high points of the entire meal. A perfectly balanced study in contrasts: the soft, slightly sweet dough against the filling of mildly savory crabmeat and slightly crunchy veggies. The fact that the dough had a bit of salt and the crabmeat a little sweetness provided added nuance. They came at the end of the meal -- right before the plate of watermelon, cantelope, and grape tomatoes that's typically served as dessert -- and by that time nobody was very interested in eating any more, which meant that I had no competition in polishing off four of them myself.

If I look happy and content here at the end of the banquet, is it any wonder? The lunch was just the beginning of a jam-packed day in Zhuhai, but the rest will have to wait till the next entry. . . .