Hawkes Bay NZ Water trail

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Log Boom Park in Kenmore

It's been a spectacularly sunny Saturday and I rode on the Burke Gilman trail. The top of Lake Washington is sparkling like a million diamonds in the afternoon sun. There is a sense of hope in the very early spring greenery.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

A little bit of Tibet in Greenwood

I ride past the Sakya Monastery twice a day when I go to a tutoring gig at North Seattle College. It's no longer incongruous to see these rows of prayer wheels among the modest bungalows in this North Seattle neighborhood. Sometimes I see a monk sunning on the temple steps but today it was simply me and my bike among the bodhisattvas.
Reminds me both of China and Nepal. I hope to visit Tibet in the next few years when I am in a happier and more stable period of my life. Until then, I'll quietly whisper "Namaste" as I pass by on my bike. It's a little meditation.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

In Belltown yesterday

One piece from "Heart in throat, head in hands, tongue in knots, heart on sleeve," by artist Elizabeth Higgins O'Connor. Several years ago I worked in this neighborhood, among artists who could take emotional turmoil and give it form.
This speaks to me, in February, 2015. I recognize myself in this mess of vulnerability, longing, destruction and confusion.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Sunday bike riding in Tongling you never can tell...

I went riding on a cold day of filtered sun, not expecting to see anything new. Yeah, right. This is China. I found a brand new tunnel through the hills leading back into downtown. No cars driving wrong way up the divided bike lane. No unlit mopeds on the wrong side of the road. Wow. What country is this? Must be a soft opening. Once the locals discover the tunnel is open, it'll become the crazy free for all of cars, trucks, busses, three wheelers, mopeds, and guys pulling wooden carts loaded with pig carcasses, heat storing bricks or a mountain of recycled cardboard that defines roads everywhere else in China. But not today. Today this is neat and law abiding Germany.

Haolisha Bakery Tongling Tuesday Jan 20

OK, You can take the English teacher out of Seattle, but you can't take the coffee shop out of the English teacher.
Tongling is a city in China that still lacks a Starbucks, but it's not really a problem. Grading is mind-numbingly tedious on any continent, so the solution is to sit all afternoon listening to Chinese pop music over a 10 yuan cappuccino. Eventually the prices here will go up to the American prices charged in more Westernized cities like Shanghai. But right now, in January 2015, things haven't yet passed that tipping point.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

On "Food Street" Friday January 16

I never get tired of the variety of ingredients laid out to tempt you to order a stir fry or two. Of course, sometimes I've thought I've ordered some thing but I get a plate of something else. Not really sure why. Perhaps the cook believes that only ingredients "x" and "y" work together. Or perhaps what I've said in Chinese isn't what I thought I'd said.
All part of the experience.

How to re-acculturate to the USA

Harbor Island en route to West Seattle.
After the intense effort of adapting to life in fumey, censored, infuriating, gorgeous China you have to do it over, and re-adapt to clean, liberal, infuriating, gorgeous Seattle. Days like this help.
Haven't ridden this one since last June. But it seems I still remember how.

Adventure Cyclist January 2015

It's a sunny January Saturday in Tongling and I'm out for another of my "only a few miles on the odometer but heck I'm a million miles away" rides. I've been watching some guys fish for carp in these ponds. This is after a quick spin through a nearby ramshackle village populated by impossibly spry older people. They're enjoying a gossip with the neighbors as they watch strings of their homemade sausages dry in the sun. There are the cutest semi-feral dogs hanging around and not once do they ever chase me, or the bike. When the village peters out along a weed and rubbish choked stream, there's a chorus of glorious birdsong from the reeds, from the magpies and wrens and tanager-like birds that populate this part of the world.
China is surely the definition of "intense." I'm still learning to adapt to life with a chronic knee pain, and it's been so damned hard to accept that I have to take it a lot easier when I ride these days. No pedal stomping for me today, if I want to be able to walk tomorrow. My normal response is thst of every other cyclist I know: b*gger that. Still, China's helped, in ways I'd never have imagined possible half a year ago. What I've lost in mileage, I've made up (in spades) with experience. China surely delivers in the "what the heck was that?" department. It could be the couple working on the side of a highway, using a diesel powered press to make a comforter, oblivious to the trucks roaring by, only inches away. Or the guy jogging to market with 6 live ducks strung by their bills 3x3 on a bamboo pole. Or the wads of fake banknotes you can buy to burn in the cemetery so your ancestors can go shopping in the afterlife. Or the daily WTF moment when you try to cross a street among all the madness of honking cars, trucks, buses, bikes, mopeds, 3 wheelers, grannies pushing toddlers in wheeled upright chair strollers, and even guys dragging wooden carts laden with recyclables or heat storing bricks that literally come at you from every direction. How does it work? Why does it work? Beats me. It's China.
These 5 months have been a real adventure for this cyclist. In the last week of this month I'll get the chain smoking guys at the bike shop to take off the bikerack, then I'll pack "Tongling the Red" in suitcase for her trip home with me to the United States. She'll be riding along with my grammar textbooks and several bags of Huangshan Mountain tea from here in Anhui Province.
I lost William the Conqueror, my Brompton folding bike, to Parisian thieves just over a year ago and I still miss him. Still, now I'm back with a Dahon bike in China's all time favorite color.
Folding bikes rule! All bikes rule! Travel with bikes really rules!

Tongling bakery Wed Jan 14

The weather has been dark, wet and cold. I'm a little sad because my teaching gig here in Tongling will be over in a couple of weeks. So, it's always great to find a nice example of Chinglish when you really need a lift. Yes, no s*itting allowed in here.
The tautological company slogan is just an additional touch.

American English Teacher's Red Cooked Eggplant December 17

Part of the attraction of 5 months in China is the opportunity to try the many regional cooking styles. This involves eating out. Sadly, your willingness to try new things does backfire from time to time. This week I've been suffering the after effects of trying spicy fish head soup with the wretched stinky tofu that seems to appear on everything, whether or not you ask for it. I never do. Sadly, I didn't do the ordering so had no time to say: gaahh! Invariably I get an upset stomach whenever I have to deal with that delicacy. So, after you get over your intestines deciding to tie themselves into a knot, you go back to your kitchen where you can trust the cleanliness.
I go off meat whenever I get punched in the gut like this. So, here's a great vegan dish: cumin crusted stir fried eggplant with onion, tomato, red chilli, garlic and ginger. The sauce is Anhui's finest soy and the garnish is mung sprouts, which I grow on my windowsill. Tonight it's plain white rice and hot water.
It turned out particularly well because I decided to leach out some of the eggplant's liquid with salt. At home I'd leave the eggplant unpeeled and bake it in the oven. Eggplant acts like a sponge when it's cooked in oil, and this is my usual solution. However, Chinese kitchens don't have ovens. Also, you are exposing a lot more surface area to oil because in China you must peel and thoroughly cook all vegetables. The "organic" gardening practices here involve raw human waste. I'm used to it now, but it was a bit of a shock at first. Compost bins are foreign here. They'd work great here in Tongling's humid climate. But I'm not sure it's an option. China has been growing food like this for millennia. There is little time to wait due because the population is large and hungry. So, you adapt.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Mom eat your soup while it's hot, OK?

I was out riding my bike on a cool and sunny Sunday (December 7). Biking in China guarantees that you'll find something along your route that will stop you in your tracks. This is one of several statues in a Tongling cemetery. They all seem to represent different forms of "filial piety", that is, respect for elders, obviously a highly cherished virtue in Chinese society.
If you've ever cared for an elderly relative, you will understand what this guy could be saying.

Lotus filled marsh in Tongling Friday Oct 3

I took advantage of this rare cool and clear day during Golden Week to take my new bike for a shake out ride. By pure luck I headed inland, away from the busy heart of Tongling. Perfect for learning how to use the dial shifter on the handlebar and adjusting the seat correctly. In the bike shop I'd simply bought the bike without a test ride. Not something I'd do in the US, but here I'm not sure if you can test ride bikes, and I had absolutely no idea how to ask for that. My poor little Lonely Planet phrase book doesn't cover this sort of shopping situation. However, Dahon sells bikes in the US, and I trusted my instincts. Most of the components were good quality and it had decent Schwalbe tires. Turns out I did just fine. The bike seems sound and it rides comfortably. It's surprising, though, just how quickly it gets dirty. I'm used to the rain washed streets of Seattle. So I sponge off my bike after each ride. This isn't because I'm a crazy neat nick, it's smart preventive housekeeping, as I'm storing it in my apartment with white marble tile floors. The streets of Tongling have muddy potholes near its many active construction sites, and the road can be rough in places. The dirt around here is red and sticky clay. It sticks to everything. Perhaps it makes good pots. Anyway, this characteristic affects surface drainage when it rains, and streets get waterlogged fast. To reach the pretty oasis in this photo, in a marshy area near the railroad tracks, I had to navigate a flooded roadway under the trestle bridge. I waited for a few cars and mopeds to splash through first, then rode the center line before the water fully pooled back. After a full month here, I now know that cars and mopeds alike completely disregard pedestrians and cyclists, so it pays to wait to avoid a soaking. With so many new car drivers in China, these "early adopters" act like the US 30 years ago. As in: "Roads are for cars, I'll just honk and honk so you understand that I'm barreling through." It's obnoxious behavior, but, perhaps with time, Chinese drivers will become more considerate of other road users. I hope so. While there seems to be a lot of traffic in Tongling, the reality is, the majority of China's 1.3 billion inhabitants don't yet own a car because they can't afford to. But as a car is an aspirational possession, car ownership can only increase. I'm learning to expect motorbikes, mopeds, trikes and other cyclists to drive both ways in the separate "bike" lanes on each side of the wide boulevards here. I'm also on the alert for cars that shortcut along these alleys, laying on the horn as if I'm both deaf and blind to their approach. I'm not planning to ride at night, ever, because mopeds, motorbikes and a few too many cars drive without headlights. Saving energy perhaps? Crazy? Absolutely! Obviously it's not a ticket able offence for the local traffic cops. Disconcerting at first, now I'm sort of used to it.
Beyond the flooded roadway I tooled along along an avenue lined with small trees and pruned shrubbery until the boulevard abruptly ended and turned into a dirt track going through a village. A lady was raking a big pile of wheat kernels in the cul de sac, using the hot road surface to dry the grains. Hmm. Now I know that washing my bulk grains free of stones really does make sense! Nearby are some half completed apartment towers. I strongly suspect this is one of the many bankrupt real estate projects all over "go for broke" China. The old village is still here, in a floodplain that backs up to some brush covered hills. It has some weedy ponds that must be stocked with fish because there were several guys with fishing rods trying their luck in the pond. Close your eyes, and you could almost pretend it's old China. Now that I have wheels I will explore Tongling and try to find what's left of these anachronisms. As I'm a romantic with a weakness for anything historic, I'm finding it hardgoing to locate the remnants of traditional life here. The Chinese, particularly here in SW Central China, are focused on the future that they see in the more affluent coastal cities like Shanghai, and getting there ASAP. Coming from "beautiful country" which is how "America" is translated in Chinese, it's understandable if sad, that everyone wants all the consumer trappings of the West double quick. I hope that China does preserve something of its deep and fabulous past. Really, how many themed retail shopping malls does the world need? Of course, it's easy for me to say this, as I don't have to sweep any streets with a twig broom hoping my child can finish high school and get an easier life. As an ESL teacher, I am conscious of how well regarded being a teacher in China really is. The normal high school classes are packed with students and they are doing their best to study hard and improve their economic future. Still, I have to store my bike in my apartment. I know that to someone, my bike would mean a shortcut to wealth. I'm here to teach English, not give someone an undeserved leg up to sudden affluence. The Chinese work hard for their money, and so do I.

Cathy Donaldson

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Tongling Sunday December 15, now that it's midwinter all the electric moped riders bop around town wearing this odd mix of padded comforter with a chest covering flap, attached to a pair of oven mitts. It solves two problems: riding a drafty bike in winter and having your coat ripped off your back if you actually wear it with the opening in front. However, I think that riding around in this get up must create new problems, e.g.,with aerodynamics. However, they don't ride fast, so if the flap pops up and hits you in the face, perhaps you won't really hurt yourself when you crash and fall off the bike.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Doh-Si-Doh and Promenade, anyone?

It seems that the big exercise craze in China, starting about 2 years ago, according to my English class, is square dancing. I've had a front row seat since I got here in September, as there is a square outside my bedroom window. At times I prayed for it to rain, as that's the only way you can get a respite from the "ear worm" pop music blasted from all over. It's about as far from twangy US country music and bouffant floral skirts as you can get. However, now it's colder, the dancing isn't quite so irritating, because the sound track has been changed, at least here on the plaza outside the Tongling Botanic Garden. Back in Golden Week I saw a Chinese "Richard Simmons" really rocking it out with some Chinese inflected hip hop. I keep looking for him, but I guess it was a one off. Still, if they can bring him back, there'll be a lot more young women and bashful men joining in this social exercise event.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Bottoms Up!

I love this guy. I pass this retro piece of advertising whenever I have the courage to cross to the other side of the street on the way to Tesco. I think it's either a Mao Tai (Chinese whiskey) maker or fermented cabbage shop. Or perhaps that's what they make Mao Tai out of!
If this was America, this would be circa 1950. In China? Beats me. 2005? Hey, with the pace of change here, this isn't as crazy as it might appear!

Sunday Dec 7 in Tongling

The Chinese greatly appreciate fresh vegetables, and, being a gardener myself, I totally approve. It's a thrill to see this sort of thing in December. By now, I know my garden back in Seattle is a sad mess of soggy sticks. Sadly, I had to leave my garden at its peak this year, because I was to start teaching in Tongling on Sept 1. But there are some compensations, if you bother to look. I recently checked a world map, and figured out that Tongling is almost the same latitude as Houston. So I won't get my usual wet and rainy Northwest winter. While not exactly an Australian Christmas, it'll be a different experience. Especially as I plan to be in Shanghai for Christmas Day.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Sunday Ride past Tong Ling

It's December 7, and bike riding in cool sunny weather is something I wouldn't expect back home in Seattle at this time of the year. So, today's a great day to finish the loop I first explored back in November. The air is about as clear as you could hope, so I timed my ride to start uphill about 11:30am, when the Chinese are all inside having lunch. Perfect, as it means no trucks! I saw this road sign last time. In Europe it would mean "youth hostel". Here in China it means "mountain villages".

Outside the Tongling Botanic Gardens on Friday night

My 7pm walk downtown to my Friday night volunteer gig at English Salon always serves up something interesting. Tonight, Dec 5, is, wait for it, the duck truck! Wow! It's such fun to be able to write that. Yes, a truck loaded with smoked ducks. That dog must be about to go insane!
This is the sort of thing you can only see in China!

Chinese Thanksgiving

The lack of a turkey isn't a problem. Like many Americans I like all the sides, and lashings of gravy over everything is the key. So, no candles or elegant china, and we used chopsticks, but I served a nice lunch to my expat friend from Argentina, and she pronounced it "bueno"!

Saturday November 24 at Tianjian Lake

There are some lovely bronze statues here and there at Tongling's prime tourist attraction, so I made the most of a warm autumn day and rode a circuit. It will be nice later in the week when we get some rain, as the smog is building and making everything hazy and unhealthy. Once the rain stops, the air will be clear and clean for several days.
These days I ride with my cloth face mask to reduce my exposure to the air pollution.
I'm hoping the rain is over by next weekend, as I'm planning my "Tongling Thanksgiving" as a picnic back here. Fingers crossed.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

On a roll on a November Friday Night in Tongling

I'm feeling pretty happy this afternoon, having treated myself to an hour's full body massage for 60 yuan, and successfully gone to my first movie: Interstellar. So, I'm topping off my evening with some tasty chicken wings and a melon fruit drink at a place called My.home. It has a netted kid's playground, with a bunch of over stimulated kids, like your typical McDonalds, but it's primarily a steak house.
I spent a good 10 minutes just enjoying the picture menu. You can get Cattle Miscellaneous Stuffy Soybeans, Bumpy Spicy Chicken Wings, or an extraordinary dish of Dry Beans of Burning Flesh. Or how about something translated as Smell the Duck Neck.
I love finding yet another rich source of Chinglish. You just can't make this stuff up.

You have been warned

A superb example of "lost in translation" from a restaurant in Tongling.

Lunch on Friday November 14

I teach mornings on Fridays, so today I'm making lunch, using the best soy sauce, IMHO, in the universe, Premium Mushroom Dark Soy Sauce from Haday. Anyway I think it's called this as this is one of the few English words on the label, along with "China Time-honored Brand". It's unusually thick and has "legs" (adheres to the bottle) which I associate with a good quality wine. Anyway 500ml cost me 7,90 yuan (about $1.20). Note how it stains my chicken a purple-red color. I believe this is a characteristic of the top quality soy sauces produced in Anhui Province. My Lonely Planet guide says that this is "a dark mauve hue auspiciously described as 'red', a color associated with good fortune."
Well, I trust my lunch (and dinner) dish of bean sprouts, mushrooms and this unusual leafy vegetable with purple stalks turns out as well as I plan. I've not seen this kale/cabbage/broccoli-like thing before, so I decided to experiment. I sure hope it's not some crazy fiery hot Chinese vegetable. You have to be careful with "familiar" vegetables here. The "leeks" and "red peppers" are much hotter than at home in the US. All the other flavoring a are the classics: garlic, ginger, 5 spice powder and a pinch of Sichuan red pepper.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Home on the Range

It's Week 11, mid-term for my Tongling Senior 1 HS English class, and they've just received their "big one", their first real writing assessment. You can't overestimate the difficulty of writing fluently in a foreign language. Until now I've not felt the students had done sufficient practice to make any assessment meaningful. This "hold off" approach is a difficult concept to communicate in a Chinese classroom because education here relies heavily on memorization and frequent exams.
I trust my students will rise to the challenge and do a bang up job with their interpretation of the 1876 Western standard: "Home on the Range."
The pre-writing activities have been a great opportunity to learn about a very very foreign culture. Tongling is a small Chinese city about the same size as Seattle, (less than 1 million), and the agriculture most common here involves tiny market gardens squeezed into spaces between buildings and on steep hillsides above construction sites. So, being able to explain the photograph I took of a ranch near Burns, OR, in September 2013 during a Cycle Oregon event, has taken a lot of effort.

On the last sunny and clear Tongling morning for a while

When it rains in Tongling, even though the rain is warmer, it's as dreary as a rainy day in Seattle. But the rain clears the air of woodsmoke and smog for a few precious days, and the locals come outside and make the most of it. Here's the kitchen and wait staff of the banquet restaurant that's opposite my apartment. At 9:30am, they all gather for a little team building/exercise break, dancing to the recorded music you hear all over China, for evening dancing in the local parking lot, plaza or square. It's a great idea.

A Sunday hike in greater Tongling

On November 2, I was invited for a hike in the country by a Chinese friend from "English Salon." "Salon" is my regular Friday night gig where 2 other English speaking ex-pats and I volunteer for English conversation with interested Chinese locals. Anyway, turns out most of the hiking was on small roads past traditional Anhui farmhouses, canals, rice fields, duck ponds and market gardens in a semi-rural community outside the city center. Hard to walk on for any length of time. Footsore, eventually Zhang (John) and I caught the No. 35 bus back to Tongling. Maybe next time I'll ride it on my bike. Still fun to discover something new about Tongling with the help of a knowledgeable local.

47 yuan's worth of an American icon

I decided to come downtown on a Friday evening and treat myself to Pizza Hut, which, in Tongling is an upscale casual restaurant. Of course there are a bunch of preschoolers here, screaming and hitting each other with inflatable toy mallets, but the personal veggie pizza, with the sweet corn and pineapple that's so appealing to the Chinese palate, is also topped with real mozzarella, a taste of home a very long way from home. You also get a glass of hot water with lemon, the Chinese riff on ice water. Plus all the waitresses are hanging around, watching me eat.
It's a nice treat, and fun to know how much the world loves pizza. Even if, as a rare foreigner, I'm "Exhibit A".

Thoughts on my English class's first "real" Halloween

I thought last Friday's "smashing" time with my Jack piñata would be the highlight, but my students did me one better. One guy manage to find a small pumpkin and carve it into a Jack O' Lantern as a present for his homesick English teacher. Then I scared the class by telling them Long Black Veil, the eery 1959 saga song by Lefty Frizzell, a country recording favorite with the man in black himself, Johnny Cash. Finally, I asked the class to write me some ghost stories as their weekend writing homework. Wow! The Chinese are naturals! I've just read some truly scary stories, some based on Chinese legends, others set in darkened hospital corridors or spooky classrooms after dark. It really doesn't matter that the grammar's a bit off. They're so good I'm going to create an anthology of the class tales. I might even ask the good artists in class to do some illustrations.
I'm glad they got into the "spirit" of the day, rather than simply seeing it as some sort of incomprehensible Western retail event. It's a lot more than simply a chance to buy an orange down jacket.

Weekend Outing to Guoliangcun, in Henan Province

Last weekend (October 17-18), I had the good luck to join a group trip to the Wanxian (10,000 Immortals) Mountains, in the far north of a province that neighbors Anhui. Today, while looking at my map of China, I suddenly realized just how far north it is. Keep heading west and you soon reach Shanxi province, where I want to visit Xi'an, and Emperor Qin Shi Huang's ca. 214 BC terra cotta army, during my December vacation from teaching.
The trip was organized on behalf of at least 3 clubs, including the Tongling bike club, www.tlbiketo.com.
Lucky for me I've made an English speaking friend here in Tongling, so I was allowed to tag along. I'd really like to ride with this group, but I suspect they're total hammerheads. They all ride Giant or Merida mountain bikes. I have a tear in my right meniscus, so it would be very unwise to join in. Several members brought their bikes on the bus, and I was astounded to watch them all chain smoke as they disassembled and reassembled their bikes. On Saturday, they all rode through the tunnel shown on this entry ticket. I hiked through it on Sunday. The tunnel was built by hand in 1972-78, by the local villagers who were tired of hauling their stuff up and down a set of Ming dynasty stairs, called, unsurprisingly, the "Sky Ladder." It was too misty on Sunday to see these steps cut into the local pink sandstone.
It was a wonderful trip, and not something I could easily manage, logistically, by myself.
I sure hope I get the chance to do another trip with these guys,

Cathy Donaldson

Tongling No. 1 HS Sports Meeting on Saturday Nov. 1

The weather is socked in, but at least it's not raining, so the high school is holding a rare sports event.
No parents, pep bands, cheerleaders or homecoming royalty, like I'm used to in the US, but everyone seems to having a good time in an understated Chinese way.
Here are four of my English class students, off to give support to a classmate about to run the 800 meter track event.

Happy Halloween

My papier mâché jack I' lantern piñata even came out with a Chinese leer! I took Jack to my class this morning and we all had a smashing time releasing the Halloween candy.
I doubt my students will ever have an English lesson quite like today's. All the Chinese students are fascinated by this quintessentially American holiday, which is starting to appear in China's larger cities without much explanation about what it means. I enjoyed adapting this icon to America, circa 2014, where Latino celebrations are being co-opted with enthusiasm. So, long live the cross cultural trick or treating!

Something I'll be happy to wear on the streets of Seattle

Today I bought this understated (by Chinese standards) scarf decorated with cowboy boots and stars for 80 yuan ($12) in a boutique in the underground mall I walk through when crossing the street to reach my bus stop. The shop has an unbeatable name for a native of Australia's sunshine state: "Queenxlan". Of course, this item is oozing with contradictions. Sewn into the seam is an all-English label saying "100% silk, made in Italy". It also has a little plastic medallion hanging from it, with interlocking capital C's. Now, if it really was this brand, the scarf wouldn't be sewn crooked in places, plus the price would have at least 2 more zeros on it. It's not silk, but it has a feel like wool, which is great. Great for the coming cold weather. It's almost like something vintage western style that you'd buy at Pendleton's of Oregon. I can easily hide the ridiculous fake C's, instead enjoy the patriotic theme. Plus, I'm all set for my next rodeo. And to think I found it in Tongling!

Tongling on Sunday Oct 24

You can't make this stuff up.

Goin' all the way with the stereotypes on a Sunday afternoon

Thank goodness the Hamburglar was forcibly retired decades ago. Ronald does look a little more Chinese than I remember, but no way as localised as the Colonel.

Sunday Oct 26 in downtown Tongling

I've been sick for a few days, with a cold and slight fever. Given the persistent air pollution here, I feel pretty lucky, as I've been here for nearly 2 months without succumbing. Still, after resting at home for another day, totally bored after correcting my students' last grammar quiz, I decided to go out. With the temperature reading 86 today, I just had to get some exercise. Instead of doing a bike ride, I walked downtown, past the Botanic Garden, doing a slow stroll to Tesco's, where I planned to buy some fake Gouda cheese. Cheese isn't a big seller in Tongling so I buy what's available, something that seems to be orange dyed Velveeta. Feeling the need to pamper myself, I also bought a Starbucks Frappaccino to drink on the way home. At 21 yuan, about $3.75, it's about the price you'd pay for a four pack back in Seattle, but its familiar excess sweetness is a taste of home. So, I decided to wallow in homesickness, and drank it while sitting on the bench outside the always busy Tongling McDonalds. I joined a lifesize model of Ronald on the bench, enjoying the weirdness of drinking one American icon while rubbing shoulders with another. Of course, the sight of a real live foreigner anywhere near an actual American fast food giant caused several of the customers to do double takes. While there I got to watch a gong and drum band march past, advertising something, no idea what. But something nice happened to pull me out of my wistfulness. I was greeted by a guy who comes to English Salon, my regular Friday night volunteer gig for locals who want to practice their English. "Kevin" was killing time before attending an early evening wedding, so we went into Macca's, where Kevin treated me to a small ice cream sundae decorated with gooey strawberry syrup. We had a fun conversation, supplemented by Kevin's Chinese-to-English phone app. We also provided an irresistible attraction for all the Chinese families around us, all scarfing down French Fries and trying to eavesdrop on a native speaker's conversation without being too obvious.

The Hutong that abuts the Botanic Garden

Actually, I'm not sure if "Hutong" is a word that's only used to describe oldstyle neighborhoods in Beijing, or if it means old residential community in any city. Anyway, as today's warm and clear, everyone's washing their comforters and drying them in the sun. The main walkway has been recently cleaned by the street sweepers, and I walk past a small flock of copper colored chickens pecking in an alley. There's a feral puppy sunning itself on a rock wall. This is my first time walking through this neighborhood. I pass a woman harvesting some cilantro from a small garden plot. It's a deep green, but I won't ask her to sell me any. I've finally figured out where the peasants, who carry fresh vegetables through the streets every morning in baskets hung at each end of a wooden pole, grow their crops. I've also confirmed that these crops are grown using untreated human waste as fertilizer. Around here no one eats uncooked vegetables (for good reason) and I continue to peel things like peaches, apples and apple pears.
I've been buying my vegetables at supermarkets like Tesco or Suguo. Now, I realize there's no guarantee that their produce isn't also being grown in this age old but disgusting way. Before coming here, I had a course of hepatitis shots, but this way of life remains a pathway other nasties, like cholera and typhoid. I'm not sure if China really can upgrade its methods of waste disposal and treatment anytime soon, but I sure hope someone in municipal government is looking into it.
I exited the Hutong where I thought it would end, near the caged bird sellers behind the pot plant shops. I've noticed this lane before, as sometimes I walk home from Tongling No. 1 HS through another Hutong that's the mirror image of this one. Some of the students at No. 1 live in these shabby homes. It's a testament to their ambition that they're so poor, yet working hard to improve their lives through education at a good high school.
In my 45 minute stroll I've experienced things that make China interesting and things I'd really rather not deal with. It's such a curious mix of 1st, 2nd and 3rd world around here.

Friday, February 6, 2015

9am Thursday Oct 23 Tongling Botanic Gardens

Clear sunny days in Tongling, (likely anywhere in China) where the air pollution has been tamed temporarily by heavy rains 2 days ago, are rare and precious. I took an early (by local standards) walk in the garden close to my apartment. I am developing a standard walk: I say "Nihao" to the bored and lonely old man who sits in a bashed up chair near my bus stop, as he enjoys a break from his dark and cold home in the old-style residential area on the other side of the street-facing wall. Then I stroll through the row of little shops that sell pot plants and flowering shrubs. I stop to admire their selection of truly ancient and no doubt expensive Bonsai trees, checking for any autumnal color changes. Then, either clockwise or counterclockwise I walk around the garden's central lake. I can hear the girl practicing her trumpet in a side garden, and, today, I stop to listen to the Chinese Opera singers, who occupy the primo spot near the lake with a fountain. It's a big group today, with 3 retired ladies who sing well. There's also a foursome of skilled musicians, playing their long necked Chinese violins and tapping some sort of bamboo percussion instrument , so the performance is actually good today. The ladies aren't screaming into their microphones and they're doing some dance moves as they perform. Usually I find these groups of amateur enthusiasts utterly dreadful, like a bunch of yowling cats. Yes, the weather today is quite lovely, but I don't think that's the only reason I'm upbeat about the opera singers.
I exit through some steps I've noticed that lead into another old style community behind a wall abutting the garden. Here I enter the community of shabby homes by way of a path along the side of the community toilet block. I'm no longer disgusted by the stench, and step carefully around the garbage. It's what you do in China.

Tongling Botanic Garden 4pm Thursday

Greenspace is so precious and rare in this city, so it's always a great place for people watching. Today we are spared the competing groups of Chinese Opera singers. Being midweek I suppose they're working their day jobs. Instead I enjoy a break from grading English papers in my apartment, and watch a skilled bike rider do some tricks on a boulder lined staircase.

Lunch on Thursday October 16

In Tongling, as in the whole of China, lunch is the main meal of the day. Now that it's Autumn and the sun is setting earlier, my high school has adjusted the schedule of afternoon classes which now end at 5:15pm. This means the lunch break is now 30 minutes shorter, from 11:45am to 2:00pm. With a break of merely 2 hours and 15 minutes in the middle of the day, I'm enjoying the chance to take note of the local ingredients, make something tasty for dinner, with plenty of leftovers for the next day's lunch. Here's what I are today: stir fried eggplant in Guizhou black bean chili sauce with ground pork, leeks, garlic, ginger, bean sprouts and coriander. Now, it's not that I can suddenly read Chinese. It's just that in Tesco, in the mindbogglingly extensive sauce aisle, I recognised a familiar brand, Lee Kum Kee, a Hong Kong based company that prints some English and a nice photo of the ingredients on the label. Sold!
Guizhou is a province inland and well southwest of Anhui. It's close to the chili epicure's favorite, Sichuan province.
All this dish needed was about a teaspoon of whole bean chili sauce to kick the flavor up a notch or two. I serve it with brown rice. Sure, I like polished white rice, but if I'm going to eat a stomach filling carbohydrate, I want to get all the nutrients in the husk.
Now, some of my Chinese acquaintances look at me oddly, thinking: "Why is she eating that when you can get lovely white rice? Only peasants eat brown rice."
Peasants for sure. I prefer the nutty flavor and it's a nice foil to the spicy main course. Also, because I followed a vegan diet in Seattle this past summer, I've stripped off a few kilos I could well afford to lose.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Happy Halloween Tongling Style

If ever there was a place to stock up on individually wrapper bite-sized candy, your average Chinese supermarket, like Suguo in Tongling, is custom made for the task. Snacks and sweets are priced by the half kilo (500g). I got a terrific assortment of orange colored candies for about $4. I'm making a pumpkin piñata for my class on Friday, October 31. Trick or treating is difficult to explain, but I think everyone will "get" the fun of whacking a candy filled piñata.

Apartment living in Tongling Sept 16

My 2 bedroom apartment is on the 2nd floor of this block, in the peach colored section, with my metal cage enclosed kitchen window just visible through the trees. I only have neighbors above and below me, with my front door opening into the shared stairwell, that exits through the vaguely Greek style portico. My accommodation is sparsely furnished with a newish pleather couch and matching coffee tables, plus 2 vinyl chairs that will be more attractive once I buy a couple of seatcovers to hide the badly worn seats. I have 2 tables. One I use for writing my lessons, while TH e other, a mahjong table with a plum red frilly tabletop cover just sits in my empty 2nd bedroom. I've repurposed 8 of stools that go with the mahjong table to serve as bookstands, with the 9th serving as a hard and very uncomfortable stool to use to sit with my laptop in my bedroom. The lack of furniture has an upside; it's super easy to mop and dry the white marble tile floors throughout the space.
While my interior is nearly ascetic, the exterior is bustling with street life. Opposite my building is a large and barely 4 month old banqueting establishment. At first I thought it was also a hotel, but someone told me it's solely a restaurant. On the 2nd floor is a large sit down restaurant, like you'd see in a Chinese restaurant in America. The 3rd and 4th floors are private dining rooms, with a large revolving table taking up the lion's share of floor space. It appears that business is good, with the place really rocking out on Friday nights.
It appears that the banquet hall serves another purpose as well. Last night (Monday) I was treated to yet another fireworks display. First the now familiar deafening cacophony of red crackers, which I now know are draped over the sidewalk, like an explosive hallway runner. Quickly following was a display of heaven bound rockets, giving me a bird's eye view of exploding rosettes. This time I was only slightly startled by the activity, as it's been going on, day or night, ever since I arrived 2 weeks ago. I've learned that crackers are used to mark funerals, marriages, the opening of a new store, or, in terms of construction jobs, literally starting the project "with a bang."
So, I'm guessing that last night, somebody was celebrating something. I see that it's a bit of a mixed blessing, living opposite a big Chinese restaurant. But, as I'm learning to say: TIC (this is China).