– Creating a Soundtrack

Instead of focusing on the websites I couldn’t reach while in China, such as Facebook, Twitter, and sometimes even Gmail, I will write about the Chinese site, which is strongly affiliated with Google. Searching for music on Google China or through allows users to download almost any song. In a country that clearly has the capability to regulate the Internet, it is equally interesting to consider the sites and online industries without regulation. And even more so is how Google endorses them. That said, it does make sense for Google to do so in order to compete with its Chinese online search competitors like Baidu. Google, then, justifies its actions by explaining that the Chinese will download their music free of charge regardless if they can find links through Google Search; therefore, Google tries to place advertisements around those links so that the music industry can at least profit some from the high music downloading rates in China.

Throughout my life, I have always connected certain songs and specific artists to certain life events. This is partly because when I find a song I like, I have a tendency to listen to it over and over, but it might also go beyond that. I remember receiving my first CD player and listening to Matchbox 20 while writing my Bar Mitzvah thank you cards. I remember listening to Dave Matthews while driving to high school. Beginning of my high school senior year is marked by R. Kelly’s hit “Remix to Ignition.” My year living in Casa Italiana while at college makes me think of upbeat artist Mika. While riding my bicycle, my water-bottle shaped speaker would almost always blare 80’s tunes. And of course, anytime I’m on a family road trip, I look forward to Neil Diamond joining us. In other words, I feel that there is a rough soundtrack to my life, and I wanted to continue this as I traveled.

I filled an mp3 player full of songs before leaving, but after finding easy access to Chinese and Southeast Asia popular music through, I added many new hits to my playlist. Now, as I continue to travel, hopefully, I will start to connect these popular Asian tunes to my new adventures.


Before leaving his apartment in Shanghai, Kai and I made a plan to meet up at the Hangzhou train station and commit to a 24-hour adventure to Moganshan, a mountain top village that’s only a bus ride away. Before the Cultural Revolution, Moganshan was filled with foreigners, and there is still evidence through the style of the remaining houses. Many ventured out to this retreat location when Shanghai became consumed by heat and they needed an escape to a cooler, fresh-aired, natural resort. Now, although it still attracts many people during the hotter months of the year, it is only a fraction of what it used to be. But its natural beauty still remains and is recognizable as the bamboo forests from the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

moganshan bamboo

Before leaving Shanghai, Kai gave me a book to read by Mark Kitto titled “China Cuckoo: How I lost a fortune and found a life in China.” This book was a first person account of what Mark went through and how he eventually ended up running a coffee shop atop Moganshan. Knowing that I would have the opportunity to both spend time at The Lodge, as he calls it, and meet both him and his wife Joanna were both contributors to my excitement level for this adventure. Continuing to read their story while sipping tea at The Lodge really made the narrative come alive, as one might imagine. But not only did the book describe how they got there, it helped paint a picture of a foreigner’s life in China, the difficulties they faced, how the Chinese government operates, and despite it all, how a foreigner might still want to make China his home. I highly recommend the read.

moganshan view

My story at Moganshan involves several great hikes and a small hole-in-the-wall guest house that Kai was able to navigate us towards using his Chinese. The guest house even came with room service, although this was probably because there was limited seating elsewhere. We had some of the host’s self-proclaimed delicious food and some Moganshan Spring Beer, with the beer’s main redeeming quality being that it was still hydrating because it was so light. We sat around our bed stand, bundled in many layers of clothes, and laughed our way through dinner.

The next day after a blue-sky morning hike through the hills of Moganshan, we ate a lunch and spent several hours resting at The Lodge. Listening to Paul Simon lightly playing throughout the bar while writing down some of my trip’s adventures so that I would be sure to remember them was a perfect ending to our stay in Moganshan.

moganshan lodge1

Fun fact: Moganshan is named after the first names of Mo Ye and her husband Gan Jiang, and the word “shan” just means mountain. There are many variations to the story of Mo and Gan, but the basics are that they were sword makers, who were commissioned by the Emperor to make the sharpest sword they could. After delivering the sword, they would be killed so that no one else could come into possession of an equally sharp weapon. Here is a photo of Kai and I in front of a statue honoring Mo and Gan.

moganshan statue

Lost in Translation

Although I knew I was traveling to a foreign country where English was not an official language and not spoken everywhere, I expected more English-speakers than I found. As a result, over these two weeks in China, I began to perfect the gesticulation dance so integral to my survival. Traveling with an English map is the first step to any successful day in China. Street signs include English text, even if just the transliteration of the Chinese characters, taxi driver’s respond well to pointing to locations on a map and running my finger underneath the Chinese characters of where I want to go, and most tourist maps even included a city subway reference. With a map and an idea of where I wanted to end up, I could successfully arrive at most places. In other cases, however, when communicating with non-English speakers, as comes with trying to perfect any art form learned through trail and error, I had my fair share of errors. These are a couple, but by no means all, of my more memorable errors.

One of my first days in Beijing, I ventured out to find some dinner, and ideally, I wanted to find food to take back with me to my Beijing hostel family. I found a place that looked promising. It looked like a good restaurant with a menu full of photos so that I could have some expectation of how my food would look. I have been lucky that most Chinese menus abide by this photo philosophy, a useful tool whether or not the menu also included English. I walk into the restaurant and immediately try to convey that I want to take the food to go. Quickly realizing that my English isn’t going to get me anywhere, I start playing charades while repeating the words “box”, “bag”, “to go”, and “take away” out loud.

Two words. Big picture. I make a box with my hands. No reaction. I mime carrying a bag. They start getting more excited, and run over to me with a menu. They point at exotic dishes in the menu. I look at the door, perform the door-opening motion, and start walking in place. They start pointing to more things on the menu. I shake my hands indicating I want a clean slate and want to start over. I point at the door a couple times. I now realize that I’m the dinner entertainment for the rest of the restaurant’s customers. All eyes are on me. Realizing this game was not to be won and the sand in my charade’s hour glass had all fallen, I point at a chair to sit in.

I take a seat, they give me a menu, and after a minute or two of looking through the novel that was this restaurant’s menu, I find a chicken dish that looks safe and delicious. I order this, rice and a beer. My server immediately begins to laugh, a reaction that happened often at my expense not knowing what I was supposed to in most situations. He walks away and I hear chatter between the restaurant staff. They continue to say “chicken” between stretches of Chinese vocabulary. This is when it hits me that I had them on the completely wrong track and that they thought through all my gesticulating, I was trying to convey some sort of dish or animal that I wanted to eat. Even though “box” and “bag” sound nothing like “chicken”, I can see the humor in the situation in that they might have thought I was trying to mimic a chicken’s walk or something similar. I then understand why they were pointing to dishes in the menu as I was making a fool of myself. In the end, the dish was great, and I ate it as the majority of the restaurant continued to stare at me.

On another occasion, which was less comic and more common, I ran into communication difficulties trying to find my hostel in Hangzhou. After arriving via high speed train, which traveled at a speed of 350 km/hr, I buy a map and find a taxi, in which I point to the address of my hostel that I have saved on my phone. Not yet being well-acquainted with Hangzhou, I cannot place my hostel’s location on my newly purchased map. The taxi driver drops me off just far enough away from the hostel to make the last short walk a true challenge. I get my barrings on the map and even find my general location. Unfortunately, when searching for a very specific location, only understanding my general location wasn’t going to get me there. Based on the English instructions from the hostel, I knew that it was on a small side street off the main street where I was currently standing. This small street, however, was not visible due to the map’s high-level resolution. I walked up and down the street a couple times and then unsuccessfully tried to ask a couple people for help. I quickly realized I was no longer in a big city and even fewer people spoke English in Hangzhou, which is a much smaller city of only several million people.

Eventually, I stop and stare at my map while leaning up against a near by light post. After about 10 minutes, an attractive girl approaches me speaking disjointed, but very understandable English. I am not sure if I am more excited that she was helping me or that she is a cute girl who decided to talk to me, but either way, I stay focused on trying to navigate to my hostel. She says that she was already late for something and only had a quick minute to help me. She then asks a couple people around us for directions and we run around until she figures out where I need to go. I was confident that I am now at least pointed in the right direction down the street. We part ways, and I am left on my own to find an alley on the left side of the street at some undefined distance ahead. This task I had learned how to do. I keep asking people around me to direct me towards the alley, and eventually, once I pass it, someone will respond by telling me its behind me. After a fair amount of searching, I finally find my destination, where the staff speaks great English, there are other foreigners, and there are people to show me exactly where we are on the Hangzhou map.

That all said, now that I’m at the end of my Chinese portion of this adventure, I find myself feeling very comfortable in China.

When in a Buddhist Temple

Similar to the old saying about the Romans, when in a Chinese Buddhist Monastery, one should do as the Chinese Buddhists do. While in Hangzhou, I ventured to Fei Lai Feng (also Fei Lai Peak), which faces the Lingyin Temple. The Lingyin Temple is home to hundreds of Buddhist statues, and many probably travel here to pay their respects.

While in The Lingyin Temple, I observed a ritual involving incense sticks, bowing, and fire. After observing for several minutes, I also wanted to participate. As a solo traveler, I can use whatever luck and good fortune I can come across, and therefore took this Buddhist ritual as an opportunity to increase my chances of future luck. The ritual began by purchasing a bundle of incense sticks.

buddhist ritual

I then lit these sticks along side other participants.

burning sticks

I proceeded to bow in all four directions in an order that I had observed others doing earlier, and then I placed my incense sticks into a greater fire.

fire pit

Later on, in the theme of doing as the Chinese Buddhists do at a Chinese Buddhist temple, I climbed to the peak of Fei Lai and had my photo taken next to inscribed words on a rock. Everyone who took the effort to climb the many steps seemed to pose at this inscription, so I felt I should, too.

fei lai feng

Hangzhou Encounters

Staying at the Hangzhou Hofang International Youth Hostel just off the busy Hefang Street, I met people who had come to Hangzhou for a variety of reasons. As an example, Monday night, I shared a beer with someone from Lithuania who was traveling the world trying to sell his artwork. Then the following morning, I met another individual, Leonardo, who had traveled to Hangzhou with his family and was staying an extra day. Leonardo was a practicing Buddhist who had come to Hangzhou to visit the famous Buddhist temples.

After breakfast, Leonardo and I walked to the West Lake, which I learned is pictured on the 1 Yuan bill, and walked across the Su Causeway through the middle of the lake. Although it was a little cold, the view and the company was great. I learned that Leonardo is going to school in Vancouver, is studying physical chemistry, and is back in China because it’s his Spring Break. He explained that although his English was pretty good, it was not as good as the Chinese humanities and art majors. I also learned that Leonardo picked his English name based on Leonardo DiCaprio’s award winning performance in Titanic.

Su causeway west lake

Later in the day, after making my tourist rounds and visiting Failei Peak, The China National Tea Museum, and the Nangsong Dynasty Palace Porcelain Museum, I ran into another U.S. Spring Breaker, Yvonne, who had returned to her family in Hangzhou but is going to school in Pennsylvania. I met Yvonne at the Porcelain Museum in an area offering ceramics classes. I was watching as she formed an owl out of clay, and eventually, she looked up and blurted something out in English. I was so surprised by her English, that I forget what it was that she initially said to me. I asked if I could sit down near where she was working and then proceeded to interview her, flooding her with many questions. Around closing time of the museum, she asked if I would like to join her and her family for dinner. I immediately accepted under the condition that I wouldn’t be intruding.

I followed her to the bus station, where she insisted that I have the fried tofu on a stick that was being sold right at the station. I then had my first experience on the not-so-English-friendly bus system. Unlike the subways and railroads, the buses had no English instructions. We make it to her home, where I am greeted by her grandparents and invited inside. I take off my shoes as is the custom in most Chinese homes, and they lend me some slippers to wear while I am inside. While getting a tour of her home with tea and snacks in hand, I soon meet her mother, brother, and aunts and uncles. There was also a one a half year old who was a lot of fun once he got over being shy. Also during the tour, Yvonne tried to teach me some of the basic rules of the game Majiang before we eventually all went out to dinner.

hangzhou tea museum

The whole family came out to dinner, where among many things, I learned that the location one sits at a round table is significant. The head of the table is seated facing the door. The two most important guests are then on either side of the head. Finally, the level of importance of the other guests either travels counter-clockwise around the table from there, or varies as the seat is farther away from the host. We ordered many different dishes, including some that were a little more exotic such as the tongue of duck. Being the guest, the family would generally want me to try something first; however, I was hoping that someone else would start so that I could learn how I was supposed to eat it, with what utensil and on what plate or bowl. I usually had to start and then alter my method of eating once I learned I had being doing it incorrectly. Throughout the dinner, the smallest would find someone around the table, many times me because I was the new face, and raise his bowl yelling “Gan Bei!”. I soon was told that this was the equivalent to “Cheers!” in English, and would repeat it back to him. Being welcomed into this family’s home and joining them for dinner was easily the highlight of my Hangzhou experience.

After dinner, although I was already very full, Yvonne wanted to take me to a street market where they prepare some of her favorite foods. We enjoyed all sorts of delicious snacks on skewers despite not knowing exactly where it all was fitting in my stomach. These snacks ranged from spiced vegetables to the more adventurous squid.

hangzhou street market

What drove me to that Porcelain Museum is a mystery other than I saw it on the map and thought it might be interesting to explore. But whatever the reason, it led me to Yvonne, who in turn welcomed me into her home and provided me with a very authentic and memorable Chinese experience.

Cloudy Day on Hangzhou’s West Lake

The silver-lining to any overcast day is the potential for beautiful black and white photos.  Thus, after finding my hostel in Hangzhou, a task that was far from easy and I plan to describe further at some point, I settled in, grabbed my camera and a book about the area I’m reading called “China Cuckoo” by Mark Kitto and set off for West Lake, 西湖.  My hostel is located right off of Hefang street with its many great shops and artists, so I began by walking down this bustling thoroughfare.  After I walked about half way around the lake, I found a spot for tea and got comfortable.  Here are some of the photos I took during my stroll around the lake.




Photos from Shanghai

After arriving to Shanghai on a sleeper train from Beijing, I navigated towards a friend’s apartment. Kai from Petaluma, CA was my college roommate and now we had the chance to catch up in Shanghai, China. It was great having a tour guide for the city, a place to crash, and a chance to see a good friend.

My first impression of Shanghai is that it is a very international city, more so than Beijing. Beijing had many tourists; however, most tourists were from other parts of China and therefore did not contribute to the diversity of the city. In Shanghai, there was greater diversity from different Asian counties as well as western countries, although this may have been party because they were less diluted by other Chinese tourists coming to visit. Also when comparing Shanghai to Beijing, Shanghai is a much much newer city. Most of its history comes from 300 years ago when Shanghai started to rapidly grow due to opium trade with Britain. Being near the mouth of the Yangtze River provided many trading resources for the city, and Britain eventually realized that with opium from India, they could trade for those resources. Now, Shanghai is filled with huge skyscrapers and high-end luxury shopping malls, selling goods with such high luxury taxes that most people just window shop and wait to purchase the items in Hong Kong. In addition, Shanghai is home to the second tallest building in the world.

While in Shanghai, I visited some of the common tourist sites as can be seen through my photos below and I also had a chance to visit where Kai went to University a year ago and several parks around the city. The Chinese truly take advantage of their public parks. There was dancing, singing, card-playing, and calligraphy writing to name a couple activities that I witnessed while strolling through the park.

As seen in the French Concession Area, an artist at work:

shanghai artist

Also seen near the French Concession part of town:

shanghai bw bike

Common scene in Shanghai:

shanghai clothes lines

The crowds in Shanghai were big:

shanghai crowded

Shanghai Yuyuan Garden:

shanghai flower

A famous Shanghai landmark, the Pearl Tower:

shanghai view

The impressive Shanghai skyline:

shanghai skyline

The Shanghai World Financial Center:

2nd tallest building

The view as seen from the top of the Shanghai World Financial Center, the 2nd tallest building in the world:

from top of tower

Chinese Tea

After three very full days in Beijing, I was ready for a slight change of pace. I tried to sleep late, although this was not an easy task given the 16 hour time difference. Beijing is eight hours behind and a day ahead of California. I woke up, called home, showered, and reorganized my things in preparation for my upcoming overnight train ride to Shanghai. Then, situated comfortably in the common room of the hostel, I wrote a little and talked with the staff. Soon after, they asked if I’d like to join them tea and lunch, and I immediately agreed.

I’ve always made tea using a tea bag in a mug of hot water. This is so far from what I experienced here that it seems like a completely different drink, and because I want to remember how to make the tea that I had this morning, this will serve as instructions for how to make said tea.

chinese tea

The supplies for this operation include small tea cups that hold less than an ounce of tea, one tea pot to steep the tea, one tea pot to serve the tea, hot water, and obviously, the tea leaves. One person will act as server and all other participants will only drink and enjoy the finished product. The rules to be observed by the non-serving participants are as follows:

  • Hold the tea cup with your thumb and index finger, and place your other three fingers underneath. Note: Men should have their ring and pinkie fingers tucked below their middle finger, while women can have their ring and pinkie fingers more free form.
  • Smell the tea, note its color, and then taste.
  • If you want more tea, place the tea cup back on the serving tray.
  • If you are no longer thirsty, place the tea cup on the table in front of you.
  • If you re-find your thirst, you can move the tea cup from the table in front of you to the serving tray.
  • Gestures indicating “cheers” or “l’chaim” are encouraged but not required.

The instructions for the server are necessarily more sequential and more involved than those for the drinking participants, and I unfortunately I will probably be unable to recap this process perfectly as much was lost in translation while I was being taught.

  1. Warm the water. Note: If working with tap water in a foreign environment, bring to boil for at least one minute.
  2. Pour hot water in the empty steeping pot to both cleanse and warm the pot.
  3. Place strainer on top of serving pot in preparation to catch tea leaves, and transfer hot water to serving pot for same reasons as above.
  4. Transfer hot water once again to tea cups and pour out all remaining water. Note: If working on a tray that drains water, pour out water directly on tray. If not, dispose of water into a separate designated receptacle.
  5. Place tea leaves in steeping pot and pour in hot water. Note: Temperature of water will depend on type of tea leaves used.
  6. Let steep in pot for amount of time determined by type of tea leaves used.
  7. Pour from steeping pot through the strainer to the serving pot while attempting to prevent tea leaves from escaping the steeping pot.
  8. Remove strainer and serve tea into tea cups.
  9. The same tea leaves can be re-used many times, which again is determined by the type of tea leaves used.
  10. Subsequent of steeping will require a different amount of time than the first.
  11. Adhere to the rules governing the drinking participants and serve until all participants are satisfied.

Later this same day after walking through Baihai park, I ventured to a shopping district where I found a great tea shop. I walk in, get approached by several employees, and after showing the faintest bit of interest, get escorted throughout the store as I learn more about tea. After making it clear that I might not purchase anything, they still sit me down at a private table, and I begin tasting a variety of teas including Oolang, Green, and Jasmine. The Jasmine tea is tightly wrapped in handmade small balls, which eventually unravel as they encounter hot water. After tasting these teas and trying new snacks in-between tastings, I realize two things. First that tea could make a very good gift, and second that gift giving is an elegant Chinese tradition for saying thank you and showing respect. In the end, I purchase tea to give to William and the other hostel staff, who have all treated me so warmly.

An I-remember-where-I-was-when Moment

Every generation has their I-remember-where-I-was-when moments such as when JFK was assassinated or when the Twin Towers collapsed. One of mine, whether dignified or not, is the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. I had gone over to my sister Julie’s and her then fiancée (now husband) George’s apartment in Noe Valley of San Francisco, George prepared delicious Chicken Abobo or Adobo or something that sounds similar to that for which I remember going back for thirds, and we started watching the Opening Ceremony on their new big screen TV using DVR until we caught up to the live–although technically delayed–broadcast. I had ventured there on the BART after work at my summer internship in Soma and was prepared for something spectacular.

olympic stadium statue

The ceremony lived up to expectation. I still recall there being 2008 of everything, whether it was lights, drums, dancers, etc. I remember the giant screen that they unrolled. I remember the dancer who had ink on his hands and feet and painted as he moved across a blank canvas. I remember people coming from the ceiling. I remember drummers playing so synchronously that I feared for those who failed to do so in training. I remember the little girl singer who had to lip-sync the words because the true singer wasn’t cute enough to perform. In others words, the event was more than memorable.

stadium up close

Therefore, although the Beijing Olympic Stadium might seem like a lifeless structure post-Olympics, it was high on my list to visit. In true tourist fashion with my map in one hand and my camera in the other, I worked my way to the Olympic Stadium via subway and foot. The openness of the surrounding areas near the Olympic Aquatic Center and of the Olympic Stadium made the occasion difficult to capture on film, or on memory card as the case may be, but this did not prevent me from tying. Also, on the off chance that I could get inside, I approached the stadium and found an open gate. After starting to walk through, I got pointed around the stadium because pointing was our only common language. For a small fee, I was able to enter.

olympic stadium chair

First thing I did was walk inside and find a seat. My mind started thinking about those Opening Ceremonies and all the other Olympic moments that took place within this building. The hair on the back of my neck stood up higher inside the Olympic Stadium than it had inside the Forbidden City. I thought about the athletes whose dreams came true after spending a lifetime of training and discipline. And I thought about that Chicken Adobo (or whatever it was), and how George had remade the dish the next night because he wasn’t satisfied how the sauce came out the first night, when I had gone back for thirds. I thought about how the 2008 Beijing Olympics was China’s way of proving its dominance to the world, and how similarly to the Forbidden City and all the great palaces around Beijing, these Olympics celebrated China and demonstrated its power.

olympic stadium stairs

Designed like a bird’s nest, the Stadium’s architectural details did not come through on TV as they did in person. From the staircases to the support beams, its free-body diagram seems like a nightmare to calculate. Making certain that all the forces add up to zero and that no member is under too much stress or strain is an art in itself when looking at a structure like this. Finally, the colors complimented the architecture so perfectly that it looked as though every perspective and every lighting combination was considered. Although sometimes very simply used, the color provided life to this otherwise empty building.

The 2008 Beijing Olympic Stadium left a strong impression.

Olympic Stadium and me

Jinshanling – The Great Wall of China

Jinshanling is a section of the Great Wall located in the mountains in Ruanping county, which it about 120km northeast of Beijing. This meant leaving the hostel around 6am in order to avoid the traffic while exiting the city in order to get to the wall in reasonable time. This section of the wall is connected with the Simatai section, and it is usually possible to walk from Jinshanling to Simatai; however, at the moment Simatai is closed for reconstruction. That said, we were able to walk a fair distance towards Simatai, and as we did the wall deteriorates towards its natural state and becomes less reconstructed. The Jinshanling portion of the wall was built around 1570 during the Ming Dynasty, is 10.5 km long, and has 5 passes, 67 towers and 2 beacon towers. The group definitely got its day workout by trekking along the wall.

great wall 2

great wall 1

me on great wall