China! vol. 4

April 1, 2015 at 7:51 pm (Uncategorized)

Well the China experiences have just kept on coming – time to see if I have the stamina to write about all of them in this sitting! I’ll be on a plane to Thailand in a little under 8 hours, so of course Kyle is asleep. He had a Studio 188 gig at JZ club last night that I attended. They sounded great but the venue is a bit cramped for such a big party band. Regardless, I think the audience had a lot of fun (most importantly, I did).

Where we last left off, I was writing my previous post while Kyle was at rehearsal. I was a week and a half into my Asian adventure, and while I was writing I was eating some food I had ordered (all by myself!) from Sherpa, which is a delivery service where people on scooters go and pick up food for you. It’s less impressive when you know they have an English website, but in China I celebrate the small things that I am able to do correctly. After that I walked to the Jade Buddha Temple, which is a 10-15 walk from Kyle’s apartment. I was a little nervous about getting lost, so I looked up the route on my phone and took a screenshot. If I had been anywhere else I might have laughed at myself (literally all I needed to do was walk north for a while and then take a right for two blocks. There are signs everywhere – in Chinese and English – it’s a tourist attraction), but even the time I had spent thus far was not enough for me to be 100% comfortable strolling around alone in Shanghai. I survived the short walk, bought a ticket, and walked in.

The thing about Buddhist Temples in China that I have seen is that they all resemble large courtyards with buildings arranged inside. They look an awful lot like royal residences, and in fact some of them were at one point prior to being converted. You walk in through a large stone archway, and the smell of incense grows stronger. There is a big metal cylinder with incense sticks sticking out the open side; it looks somewhat like an industrial grill. The walls are red, there are streamers waving in the breeze, and a lot of tourists. The tourists are mostly Chinese, but there are a few other groups, and I found myself behind a Russian family for a good portion of the time that I was looking around. There is something that is rather typical in the first couple of halls – a golden Buddha reclining flanked by either boddhisattvas or demons or Tara or other buddhas. Tibetan Buddhism is kind of like Catholicism in that there are TONS of players – there’s a boddhisattva for everything much like there’s a saint for everything. There’s one problem with the Jade Temple for me, though, as I walk around: It feels really commercial. I’m not expecting every temple I go to will be super meaningful, but I was kind of hoping that for my first trip alone I might be able to get the kind of experience you sometimes find in a holy place, regardless of the religion. As I headed farther back, there was another smaller gate, and you needed to pay an extra 10 RMB to see the back half of the Temple, with the Jade Buddha. Since I’d already come this far (and the fact that 10 RMB is less than $2) I paid up and went in to the last building, up several winding staircases, and into the room with the Jade Buddha. It was dark, with just a bit of light peeking through a back window and maybe a dozen candles. A big sign as you headed in said no photos, and even though in China rules are more like guidelines I try to follow them. The ceiling was filled with thousands of small enclaves, each holding a small gold buddha. The walls were covered in portrait’s of the Buddha’s life. In the center against the back was a very large Buddha carved out of jade. This room felt different – there was a kind of reverence in the air that was missing from the rest of the place. It was the feeling I had been hoping that I might feel. I stood there and took in the scene. When I left, there was another reclining buddha in a side room, also with a sign that said no pictures. Of course, there was also a gift shop area in the same room, so I’m not really sure what kind of atmosphere they were going for. Commercialization is not something I enjoy in my religion, but it’s certainly a real thing, especially where tourists are concerned.

Day 11

The day began a little late, as most days with a musician will. Kyle and I went to a rehearsal at JZ club – Kyle plays, if you can believe this, in a Mauritian reggae band. He’s on trumpet, but they also have him sing a surprising amount. Outside of Kyle and Jason (who is Chinese and the pianist – also just a rad human being) everyone is from Mauritius. If you’re not aware, Mauritius is a small island nation near Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Hearing Kyle sing things like “I’m a black survivor,” and “Am I Black Enough?” (spoiler alert: no) was pretty entertaining. They have a fun groove, though. More on them a little later.

Afterwards we went to the Shanghai World Financial Center (also known as the Bottle Opener for it’s distinctive architectural design) to check out the city from up high. It’s a HUGE building in its own right, but stands next to the second tallest building in the world. Some of these skyscrapers are just obscenely large. There is an observatory on the 100th floor of the bottle opener, which costs 180 RMB to get to. That’s option one. Option two, however, involves going up to the 91st floor where there is a bar and the drinks are WAY overpriced, but a 95RMB cocktail is still half the price of the observatory. Plus, you get a drink. Kyle and I managed to snag a seat right at the window as some people were leaving, and the view of the city was breathtaking. Up to this point I had known that Shanghai was really big, but for the first time I got a sense of what 24 MILLION people looks like. When you’re on the ground, you are where you are. When you’re up in the air, the largest city in the world starts to take on another dimension. After admiring the view for a while, we headed down to a restaurant called Morton’s for happy hour Martinis with a couple of Kyle’s friends, Mark & Jessica. We then went to a place called Mr. X with Tyler, Courtney, and John – Mr. X is this place where they lock you in a room and you have to solve a series of puzzles to get out. There are a couple of clues at the beginning, and then you’re just looking in the dark for more clues, a key that will open the next door, or what the series of posters might mean in relation to the panel of buttons on the wall. They give you an hour to solve it; we were unable to do so. It’s hard! We had a lot of fun, though.

Day 12

Kyle invited some friends over for a Chinese kegger. Am I kidding? No, of course not. Go Vandals.

Day 13

Woke up at like 2, very hungover. Kyle had a gig with Studio 188 at a Mexican restaurant called Pistolera, so that afternoon we headed down for soundcheck. Michael, who runs the band, fed everyone and was kind enough to feed me as well. We had a bit of time before the gig, so Kyle and I went down the street and played pool for a while before the show. They played, they sounded good, everyone danced and had a great time. Me not drinking turned into a couple of margaritas – that’s life.

Day 14

Kyle and I were up and ready to go at a much more reasonable hour – we had places to be! After a couple days of going full expat I was ready to be a tourist again. Thus after a quick meal we grabbed at FamilyMart (and then ate next door at a table in a KFC, which notably had a play place) Kyle and I hopped in a taxi and headed to the propaganda museum. Taxi driving in China is kind of like the game of thrones: you win or you die. Mostly they win though, so that’s good. The driving style always makes me nervous, though. Still, anything is possible when you have a taxi driver on your side. We got to the museum, which claims to be the biggest collection of propaganda posters in China since most of them are destroyed. I should say that the museum is in what appears to be a nondescript apartment building – you walk in, take the elevator up, and all of a sudden one floor is the museum. For all I know, the rest of it IS apartments. It’s a bit hidden, but don’t worry, when the guard stationed sees a white person walk up towards the building he hands you a small card with directions written on it. The exhibit itself was a chronological history of propaganda in China, and I found it fascinating. I bought a couple of replica posters – it’s hard to really imagine the kind of things a Chinese person who is 50+ has lived through. We left and got on the metro, ready to see the Shanghai Museum, only to find that once again it was closed! The website Kyle had looked at got the time wrong, and it closed an hour earlier than we had thought. Undeterred, we had some excellent dinner at a place called the Lotus Eatery with Courtney, John, and Tyler. Kyle then had a gig with Nukillahs (the Mauritian band) at JZ club, which in my estimation went very well. I’m not a huge reggae guy, but that night I was feeling the island music. Normally on a Saturday night the party at JZ goes until at least 3am, but we left around 1:30 since we had to be up to go to Beijing early the next day.

Day 15

A couple weeks in China and it was finally time to leave the Shang behind and go to Beijing for a while! I was excited but a little nervous, since Beijing has a reputation for being a bit more authoritarian and less welcoming, whereas Shanghai is a pretty international city. We get up, get on the metro, ride to the train station, and are about to get in line when Kyle realizes THAT WE ARE AT THE WRONG TRAIN STATION. Shanghai, being huge, has 2. So we frantically get a taxi and tell the driver to step on it, and race away to the other one. As you may know by now, we made it, and even had a little bit of time to grab some coffee (Starbucks. Starbucks everywhere. Globalism in action). We hop on the train – it’s about 5 hours to Beijing via rail. I have a window seat, which I am pumped about. I love looking out the window. Kyle is able to pass out – I’m not so good at sleeping on the train. I catch a bit, but not much. The train wobbles when we pass another train, each passing each other at 300km/hr. One thing I notice is that there are a lot of bird nests. Big, globular nests sitting in trees and power lines and anything else treelike. I watch the city turn into rural farmland and small towns. Low houses with bits crumbling off the edges, dirt roads, and fields fly by. I know that we’re going to get there sooner at this speed, but sometimes I want the train to slow down so that I can take some of this in – it all goes by so fast! The ground, which up to this point has been very flat, begins to get hillier. Visibility isn’t great, and I can’t tell whether it’s foggy or just that polluted outside (I would come to find that yes, it was pollution). There’s a lot of rubble in between buildings. Things look rundown, mostly, though sometimes giant new apartment high rises poke out of the mist as we pass a city. I think about the fields, though, and how people have been working them for 5000+ years. How to even imagine roots that old and deep? More buildings jump out. 30 stories? 50? Buildings that are meant to hold a very large number of humans, and there are so many of them in China. Where do you put 1.6 billion persons? Something I notice is that there are solar panels on almost all of the buildings, which seems like a smart way to generate electricity in the city. I doubt they are working well today, though. There’s not much in the way of suburbs, as far as I can tell. You’re either in the city or the country. As we continue north, it gets a bit more mountainous. I see little pagodas on ridge lines.

A small tangent: There is a LOT of construction in China. All over. Always. It’s happening in stark contrast to the dilapidated and crumbling buildings near them, but new buildings are going up. From a purely empirical standpoint of my time in China, one thing that the Chinese do well is build things. Apartments, the Great Wall, the 2nd tallest building in the world (Damn you, Dubai).

We get in to Beijing, and promptly spend another hour on the subway getting to our airbnb place. We met with Lefty, one of our hosts, and then got some food. The apartment we were staying in is small but cozy, and inhabited by the aforementioned Lefty, her boyfriend Alamo, and their dog, Doggy. Kyle and I had thought there were two beds, or a bed and a pullout, maybe, but there’s just the one in our bedroom, so we get to snuggle up. To get to the apartment you have to head through a series of small alleys, maybe two persons across. There isn’t a toilet in our apartment, you have to walk a little ways back into the main alley to get to the public toilet. This bathroom is also what’s known as a squatty potty, which means that you’re basically camping – they holes are just in the floor. This is not my favorite thing about China, the dearth of toilets.

With a bit of time left in the day, Kyle and I decide to head to Tianamen Square. We’re wearing facemasks this whole time, as it is quite polluted outside. Tianamen Square is HUGE. Just massive. At one end is the Forbidden Palace (which was already closed by 4), and at the other a castle. In between lies a lot of open space, and to the sides are the government headquarters and a museum, respectively. There are cameras everywhere. Every pole is bristling with 5-10 of them. It’s a comical number of cameras, and in the moments it didn’t make me a little anxious I wanted to laugh. There are a lot of soldiers, too. Both cameras and soldiers are dwarfed by the number of tourists present, though. People are taking pictures all over (and having their picture taken, I’m sure). We then went a bit south of Tianamen, and wandered through the touristy district. After going back to our airbnb Kyle got a message that a friend of his was playing bass at a show near us, so we wandered through more dark alleys and found this little bar to listen to some music in. I will say, though, that there are a lot of places that I might feel uncomfortable at night in a dark alley, but China isn’t really one of them. For all of its issues, it feels (and as far as I can tell IS) pretty safe. We went to bed early-ish, knowing that we had to get up the Great Wall the next day.

OK – I am feeling some writing fatigue, so the rest of Beijing will have to wait. Kyle and I are heading to Thailand today, so we’ll see if I am able to write anything in the next week or so. Onwards and Upwards!

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous said,

    Looks like you are having a wonderful time. Busy busy. Guess you will have to catch up on your sleep when you get home. Be safe. Love you, Gpa and Gma

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