Ink gardens

Xiao Mao here.
I drew some pictures while at the gardens in Suzhou. This is a small, artificial mountain:

A pavilion as seen from the tea house:

A pine bonsai in the Humble Administrator's Garden:

As I sat sketching the pine bonsai, a man paused to look over my shoulder.
"Can I take a picture?" he asked, in English. Of course he could. Later, more people stopped to look. A group of college-age people gathered around, talking. Chinese like to watch people draw, as I knew from the crowds that gathered around caricature artists. It was a whole new experience to have attracted a crowd myself, and hearing their "oohs" and "aahs," I felt giddy. Suddenly I heard someone exclaim, "Wai guo ren! (foreigner!)" and my calm, serene artist illusion broke into pieces as I cracked up laughing. Seeing my from behind, they had assumed I was Chinese.

The Dragon Well

Xiao Mao here. I'm about to tell you about a certain famous tea. Photos by Donald.


The bus from Hangzhou to Longjing village takes only 30 minutes. I was reading some of the Hanzi outloud to myself and the bus stop, "Long Jing Shan Yuan, Long Jing Village," when an old lady asked me,

"Are you going to Long Jing Village?"

"Yes, I am," I said.

"Going to drink tea?"

"That's right."

"I'll show you the stop," she offered. We began talking after we got on the bus, and I learned that she was indeed a tea farmer, coming in to Hangzhou city in order to refill her bus card. Her Chinese seemed strangely over-pronounced, which is unusual because most people tend only to speak louder when I misunderstand them, but never clearly. I suspect her native language is Wu, common in central China.

The tall buildings disappeared after only a few minutes' ride. Replacing them -- Tea Gardens. Rows upon rows of green bushes lined in steps up the sides of gentle hills.


Our tea lady beckoned us off the bus at the last stop and we began to walk towards her house. This village is quite a tourist spot for the Chinese, and the tea farmers are all rich from it. No thatched-roof mud-huts will be seen in Longjing or its neighboring villages, but newly built two-story houses with rosewood windows and wide front doors that open to a patio. Yet the interiors of the lovely houses contain sparse decorum. On a dusty concrete wall, a shiny new flat-screen TV hangs over a beat-up folding table. As you pass a house, one of the farmers looks up from playing cards and says, "Long jing cha?" in a casual and unaggressive tone.

We bought 3 liang of tea from our guide. I won't bore you with the details of Longjing grading, but we got good tea for ourselves and the best grade as a present for Wei Wei, the tea art teacher, in Shenyang.


The main objective now complete, we decided to wander. Hills of tea gardens rose up to either side of us. Thin paths threaded through the bushes, small stones were piled to create steps on the terraces. Tea plants grew right along the cobblestone road we walked, and even these seemingly-wild plants were tended, the buds carefully cut in anticipation of new growth.


This area is called 9 creeks.


Chickens are a usual site.


One path followed a waterfall up the side of the mountain.

Finally, we visited the imperial teahouse where Emperor Qianlong once enjoyed Longjing. In the back, on a modest patio, is the namesake of Longjing tea: The Dragon Well.


Only a few meters across, with nothing particularly special to set it apart from any other well. In fact, Longjing tea is traditionally brewed with water from another spring entirely, from Hupao Spring. In the end, there is not much connection between the tea and the Dragon Well itself. But regardless, it stirred me to look at the dragon's head perched above the well, water trickling from somewhere deep beneath ferns' roots and over its chin into the basin. I felt that his grey, stone eyes, in their infinite calm, had somehow recognized me, knew me from halfway across the world and half a lifetime of tea drinking. In the sound of the water dripping I could hear not words, but meaning: Welcome back.

Happy New Year!


I thought about taking photos of Chinese New Year. But it just wouldn't get it across. So imagine:

Several days before New Year, people start shooting off fireworks. Emphasis on days: no one hesitates to shoot them off in broad daylight. So far, close enough to 4th of July, albeit a couple days early.

On the morning of New Year's Eve, the fireworks begin in earnest: the explosions are constant, but still recognizable as fireworks. One particularly loud barrage brings me to the roof of the office to see what's going on. It sounded like jet fighters flying low overhead. I see a cloud of gray smoke extending 10m from the ground with dozens of little white magnesium flares popping off in the cloud every second.

By nightfall, the city is blanketed in smoke, and the fireworks really kick into high gear: no longer can I hear fireworks, just a constant roar. This grows louder and louder as midnight approaches. The apartment complex just south of us is shooting off fireworks from 5 different sites within their grounds.

At midnight, all the sites go off at once in an endless explosion. The smoky sky is white with the flashes.

As of writing, this continues. I wonder when they'll stop . . .

Beijing 1: I'm an ex-pat, not a tourist!

Xiao Mao here. Back from Beijing and ready to write! There are so many things I could write about, and I'll try to do them all this time, unlike my solitary Harbin post which ended up like a Siamese twin with one half stillborn.


Donald planned for us to take a minivan from the downtown backpakers' hostel to an original section of the wall with a small group of other tourists. Standing outside the hostel, I saw more foreigners, more non-Chinese, than I have seen in six months. We numbered ten, total. I suddenly felt like an exotic bird who thought itself one-of-a-kind suddenly discovering that it was bought at Pets-Mart.

But moreover, they were tourists, not ex-pats. I had never met a tourist in China before this. There are no tourists in Shenyang. You live there because you married a nice Chinese girl or boy who is from Shenyang, or because you found a job there. And now I was standing amidst people who looked like me, who spoke fluent English (though the majority were German) and feeling like I ought to say something, that we ought to have something in common to talk about. After all, weren't we going on this hike together? I thought about saying "Hello!" in a Chinese accent, the way Chinese folks on the street will cheerfully shout at foreigners. But had they had that experience? They looked so serious. And they were so quiet. They did not look up when Beijingers strolled by, chatting. I realized they wouldn't know any Chinese, being here only a week or a few days.

International Backpacking, I soon realized, is a hobby. A hobby that requires a full catalog of The North Face clothing, Gortex jackets, $300 hiking boots, and steel walking sticks. And there I was, in my suede mini-skirt and wool leggings, because I had deemed a suede mini-skirt the most practical thing for I owned for a day-hike. I did not even have a backpack. Either I was an under-dressed fool, or these people had approached a 3-hour walk the same way they would approach the prospect of one week on a deserted island. Secretly, in my bitter soul, I relished the knowledge that I, too, could dress in North Face if I wanted, because they make that shit in China and I know where the wholesale markets are.

And if that sounds petty, it's because I can't hide that I sometimes feel petty. After realizing that I had nothing in common with the other tourists, to save myself from feeling inferior I had to think of reasons why I wasn't. I think the human brain can never truly hold two things equal or in ambivalence; if they are different, something must always be on the bottom. In my very human brain, it wasn't going to be me.

They could have been nice people, I don't know. I never spoke to them. And for their part, they never said a word to me either.

Tomorrow: Beijing 2: The Great Wall

Harbin 1: Китайский Петерь

Kristina here. I've been trying to write this post for days, but every time something has gone wrong, cumulating with yesterday's power outage. So finally, here is a post about our recent trip to Harbin! For more, you can always check our Brittany's blog, Adverb's China Adventures

Located in the extreme north, in Hei Long Jiang province (literally Black Dragon River), is China's answer to St. Petersburg: Harbin.


Harbin is a relatively new city, in 1898 Russians made the first settlement, but history is alive and rich in Harbin. In Shenyang, history is a lonely fossil largely lost in the excitement of wholesale goods markets. On our brief walk through downtown Harbin, we passed no less than four churches, representing the full spectrum of Abrahamic religions. The first one we came to was the St. Sophia church:


Gorgeous on the outside, nothing much on the inside. At this point on our journey, we realized something about batteries. They don't work below a certain temperature, and that temperature is found in Harbin all day and night. To solve this problem I eventually began to keep the batteries in my pocket next to a heating pad. Any time I wanted a photo, I would have to take off my gloves in -30 C weather, dig into my innermost pockets for the batteries, put them in the camera, take the shot, and finally remove the batteries and put them back into my innermost pocket. So there are not too many photos.

Wandering around further, we came across a small old Synagogue converted into a hostel and cafe.



You can see not one but two samovars in this picture.

This charmed us so thoroughly that we spent a good few hours sitting around and drinking our first, second, and third espressos in China. And they were good. The one lone barista knew her stuff, and was quite friendly, too, so I decided to practice my Chinese on her. It's getting to the point where I can understand people who aren't Wei Wei (my language partner). It helps that the first questions people inevitably ask are, "Are you a student?", "What country are you from?" and "How long have you been in China?" After we got those out of the way, we talked about how cold it was outside and how warm inside. Harbiners don't screw around in that respect. They can deal with inhuman temperatures when they go out, but they want no part of that in their own dwellings. You can wear your summer clothes indoors in January in Harbin.

After complimenting my Chinese (it doesn't matter where you're at, they always compliment your Chinese), she said "Some foreigners are here 6 months and they don't even have 'Ni Hao'." Well, this is the translation. What she really said was, "Ta men mei you 'ni hao'."

We spent our one night in the hotel, Ru Jia, which means "Like Home." It looks basically like any decent Western hotel. The sheets were soft, green cotton with little clover leafs. Next to the bed was a box with a label in English, "Treasure Emergency," containing a pack of condoms.


I took this picture from my hotel window as the sun set. That's the end of this post, but stay tuned for Harbin 2: Snow and Ice Festival!


Haiku gained their fame as travel poetry. In that spirit, some verses on China:

In the gray mist,
color: oranges stacked high
on a bicycle

All Chinese know how
to greet foreigners: "Hello!"
The French must hate it.

A brick stood on end
in the leaves on the sidewalk
warns: open manhole.

Smog and buildings glow
in Wei Mei Pin Ge neon.
Night, in Red China.

Outside in the night,
boarders shovel snow, and write
FUCK on the windshields.


(no subject)

Getting colder every day. This morning it was -23 C, a lot to handle for an ATL native. I'm wearing three pairs of leggings at all times and staying pretty comfortable, at least at home.

Most days of the week I eat lunch in the cafeteria, shi tang in Chinese. It's a good idea to arrive at 11:40 when it opens, otherwise the food gets cold very quickly. In fact, I've given up entirely on eating the stir-fried items. They get serve in long, shallow, metal hotel pans, and despite each one being made from different ingredients, after a few minutes in brisk, open air, they quickly become the same "slime in slime sauce." These days, I only eat the soups and porridge, steaming happily over a heated pan. Not to mention they don't salt the soups nearly as badly as they salt the entrees. Dong Bei Ren (Northeasterners) love their salt.

They also have a pan of meat on the opposite counter. Kitchen staff hand these out individually, for portion control. It's a good day when they serve chicken wings. Just plain old chicken wings with cinnamon. It's good! They also serve some kind of pork knee or shoulder, not exactly sure which bone but getting to the actual flesh is like trying to solve a rubix cube. "Maybe if I twist this ligament out of the way, move this bone shard over here... oh fuck it." You ever heard the Daoist story about the butcher? His knife never dulled because his cuts were so perfect? I don't think he's a Dong Bei Ren.

Anyway, fish heads. Apparently eating the brains of other animals can make one smarter, even if those animals have a 5-second attention span and swim around in their own excrement. But fish heads aren't served any old day of the week, no ma'am. When someone special visits the school, someone from the embassy perhaps, then they break out the fish heads. Like little pyramids with their lips gracing the peak, each the size of a man's fist. They stare at you, at the embassy visitor, as if they mean to say, "Welcome to YuCai!"