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26 Nov 2006
Just Five From Tonight

My legs feel like I was all over Shanghai. I think I really was... Old Town, a neighborhood full of wild side roads, The Bund, Nanjing Road... Here are five images from my night, in no particular order:

More later, of course, but I just had to post these.

by Dean Webb

From the Cultural Revolution Textbook I Picked Up Today



My grandfather is a poor peasant. He is sixty-two years old. He often says to us:

"Before liberation the landlords exploited and oppressed us cruelly. We poor and lower-middle peasants worked for them day and night. We lived a very miserable life. Now we are masters of our country. We all live a happy life. We must never forget the Communist Party after our liberation. We must never forget Chairman Mao in our happiness. We must follow Chairman Mao closely and make revolution forever."

Can't wait to get to Lesson Ten, "Down with Soviet Revisionism!"

by Dean Webb

25 Nov 2006
Nanchizi Daije

I woke up on day three in China at 11:23 AM. Yikes! How did I oversleep that much?

Well, one, I was tired from the day before.

Two, that wall in front of the window kept out the sunlight.

Three, the room faced north anyway, so there wasn't a lot of light happening, anyway.

Four, there was a power outage.

Well, I can see how the combination of those elements could keep me abed that long. 11:23 AM wakeup time didn't give me a lot of time to get blossoming brilliant and Calgary, but I managed in the half-light of room 203. I had to get to the suit place later that afternoon for a fitting so I figured I'd try and pick up something along the way for brunch and make my way to the Qianmen area.

Before I did that, I made inquiries about getting a train ticket to Nanjing. The hotel travel clerk gave me an idea of when the train would leave, but with "bu dien", no electricity, we couldn't book a whole lot of train tickets.

Instead of going out of my way to go down Wanfujing again, I took Nanchizi Daije, between my hotel and the walls of the Forbidden City.

I loved it. Sure, it was grittier, but it was real. The traffic sort of floated along the road beside me and life moved slowly as I made my way down Nanchizi Daije. I actually felt safer there than on Wanfujing, if only because nobody approached me to try to take advantage of me.

I walked past a few open windows where short-order cooks slung Chinese hash and shouted out to those of us on the street to buy their food. I bought a pork-onion sandwich from one vendor for only ten yuan. The sandwich was delicious, filling, and hearty. I stopped at a shop down a ways to get a soda.

While I sipped a soda, an old woman motioned for me to sit on a stool next to her. I sat down and enjoyed my meal while we watched a Chinese game show.

We didn't say much, but we didn't have to. It was a pleasant day, nice and sunny, with only moderate pollution to cloud up the view. We smiled and I tried some pidgin Chinese. She smiled. I dropped my empty soda bottle when I finished drinking it and she didn't let me pick it up. She placed her hand on mine to stay me and motioned that she'd take care of it.

I felt touched. All I could say was, "Thank you. Xie xie", smile and then leave.

I hadn't gone but a few yards when I just had to take a picture of how slow-motion the day was.

Walk in the street, drive on the sidewalk, whatever... nobody stopped, we just kept moving.

Later on, I happened upon some workmen taking their lunch. Another photo op for me.

There's tons of construction all over Beijing, keeping guys like this in yuan. The big streets aren't the only ones getting upgrades. Even the hutongs, little enclave-neighborhoods off the main roads, are getting redone. My hotel, Tang Yue, was one such hutong makeover. No cab driver knew where it was, it was so new.

The construction isn't just for the Olympics, either. I can say now that it's the same story all over China. Everywhere's getting built up bigger and taller. China is the world's largest consumer of concrete and steel and when it's finished with the first round of modernization, India will be stepping up to keep demand for those materials high.

Take a look at this construction:

This hutong corner is made out of brick. It's not clapboards and tin, like I'd seen elsewhere. This place is solid and that's because of the new building going on in China.

It's even got a paved road.

Given how China's per-capita GDP is a fourth of the US' figure, I realized here that China is coming up fast. This shouldn't scare anyone if we're willing to be open-minded and to treat them as equals. That's the least we can do, and it's what everyone deserves.

Not all of Nanchizi Daije is rough storefronts and hutong entrances. There are a few restaurants and even an art museum along the way.

I kept snapping pictures of the opposite side of the street and then I noticed there was a massive garden over there.

Surprised, I turned and looked on my own side and saw this:

Out of nowhere, there was that beautiful scene. Then I noticed a park entrance ahead and to my right and decided I'd try and get to Tiananmen that way, not via the street I'd walked the day before.

by Dean Webb

Donghuamen Night Fever

OK, this was supposed to be the place to go to for fried grasshopper. Just down the road from the Tang Yue, towards Wangfujing Daije. I'd hit the market first, then do something about getting toothpaste.

The market looked just like the picture in the guidebook, only bigger:

It's pretty aggressive there, what with the press of the crowd and the yelling from the vendors. "HEY! YOU EAT THIS!" While that might be an insult in some parts of the world, it's a sales pitch along the Donghuamen.

I decided I didn't want to eat the urchin for sale.

There were also fried starfish on a stick. I didn't order any of those, either, and now I'm kinda glad. I hear they're nasty. As in REALLY NASTY. As in, they're only fried up so people can say, "Man, I just ate a fried starfish!", like they just participated in some episode of Spongebob Squarepants that went horribly, horribly wrong.

I pushed past bowls of normal-looking noodles and perfectly ordinary dumplings until I reached the only stand with this sign:

Yes. Fried grasshoppers here.

Some people go skydiving. I choose a different range of thrills. I'll eat a bug if you fry it and gimmee a dollar. Since this was getting expensed, that qualified.

You can see a spread of other things for eats there: seahorse, periwinkle, snake, fruits, some kind of bug... I ordered up the first three in addition to my grasshoppers.

Oh yeah, there was some kind of deboned lizard there. I didn't want to go there. This person almost took me there:

She is shifty. She almost tossed in one of every skewer. I kept having to yell, "Bu!" and she'd laugh. Crap service. Then again, she made a stunning presentation of the grasshoppers:

I popped one half-way into my mouth and snapped a shot. Here's proof I had fried bug in my mouth:

And then I ate it.

What was it like?

I want to be able to say it was good or bad, but it wound up tasting like crunchy grease, with a bit of a buggy taste, I suppose. It wasn't nasty, but very anticlimactic. I suppose if it had psychoactive properties or something like that, it would cost more. As it was, these exotics were 50 yuan a stick, and no nutrition to them at all. I know, I blew 200 yuan on crunchy grease. Well, the snake had a different taste to it and was really really really chewy. Unless you absolutely have to be able to say, "Dude! I ate grasshopper!", avoid the exotic stuff.

After the crunchy grease, I needed something substantial and I found a dumpling stall. The dumplings were cheap, so I bought a plate. Wow.

Spinach and garlic dumplings! What a great treat after eating... fried air? Eh. Nearby was a family from Nepal, wanting to try to find out if the dumplings were vegetarian. The staff didn't understand the meaning of the words "vegetarian", "meatless", or anything like them. I was able to help out and show what was inside.

I then struck up a conversation using my mad Hindi skillz. They were pleasantly surprised, and I started a conversation with Abishek here:

He tells me if I'm ever in Nepal, I can crash at his place. If I ever am in Nepal, you betcha I will! I think I'll call ahead, though, just to make sure...

See these signs? In Chinese, they read, "Ha ha ha! If you don't know Chinese, we can point at the highest price and you'll pay it!"

At the end of the stalls, I saw another corn stand. I thought I'd give corn another chance and see if they could do it right.

They didn't. Not only was there no butter, but the lady oversalted it. Blech.

How would I rate the Donghuamen Night Market? Out of five stars, I give it an "avoid". Except for the dumplings. They were righteous. But for the money I plunked down there, I could have had much better food elsewhere, some of it just as exotic, as I'd discover later on.

It was time to buy some toothpaste, to get all the bugs off my grill. That meant a trip down Wangfujing.

From either direction, it's lit up like Christmas, with shopping fever to match!

The best thing about it, of course, is no cars or other vehicles. That means less to worry about running over one's self.

I wanted to go shopping, but I still had the remains of what once was corn on the cob to dispose of. I wandered for about five minutes outside the Beijing Department Store before I found a trash can. There were cops everywhere and I didn't want to get deported for being a litterbug.

Finally, with the corn properly chucked away, I headed into the Beijing Department Store, feeling highly secure as I did so:

Inside, I discovered that perfume and watches are the most important things in China. They crowd up the first floor sales space and demand the most attention from everyone as the aisles are clogged with makeovers and the like. I managed to get back to the grocery section and showed the characters for "toothpaste". The ladies there pointed at another corner of the store.

I hiked over there and found the pharmacy section. Of course. Toothpaste is drugs. Why didn't I realize that? I found a tube of Oral-B sensitive and had my grail.

Next, I thought I'd get a backpack. That would be nice for hauling my stuff around town. Found the characters for "backpack".

Saleslady holds up a "4" with one hand and points upward with the other.


"No." Lots of shaking heads.

Little did I know how many more steps I'd climb while in China... this is not a wheelchair-friendly country, make note of that!

By the time I'd hit the 4th floor, my legs were screaming at me. They hate stairs. With a passion. I told 'em to deal with it and staggered over to the backpack section. Found just the one I wanted, the cheapest there. The lady writes up my ticket, I shuffle to the payment area, pay for it, get my receipt, head back to the backpack section and the lady's going on about the numbers 40 and 100 and holds up two pairs of gloves.

This I did not expect.

I keep trying to say all I want is the backpack.

She keeps trying to tell me how wonderful my life will be with these two pairs of gloves and waves a piece of paper with "100" all over it in big advertising, with the same brand as my bag and the gloves...

It dawned on me this was some sort of rebate deal.

When we got an English-speaker over to help us, that's what it turned out to be. Spend 200 yuan and get 100 yuan off the purchase of more stuff from that brand.

Sorry, but all I needed was the backpack.

I managed to explain that and headed back down the stairs to the first floor. In the process, I realized that salt was ripping my homeostasis apart and I'd better hydrate soon if I didn't want to wake up as a pile of powder. I went back to the grocery area and found some bottled water. As I bought the water, I surprised everyone with a little photo op:

As they rubbed their eyes, I noticed something in the corner of mine:

Thai peanuts coated in coconut milk! Oh man, these are awesome! I always get them at Asian stores in Dallas, so it stood to reason I'd find 'em at an Asian store in Beijing! I scored the peanuts and felt much better about the culinary direction of my journey.

Back on the street, I headed back up to Donghuamen and thought I'd check out the Foreign Languages Bookstore on the way. The guidebook said it was pretty cool. Not 50 feet out of the department store, though, some lady runs up to me and says, "Hey! I know you! Remember me? I met you earlier today!"

"You did?"

"Sure. I saw you earlier."

I'm suspicious. "I don't remember seeing you."

"Hahahahaha. Well, there are lots of people here. Say, you know I'm an artist?"

"Really?" Somewhere in my mind, brain cells were looking up "artists in Beijing" to see if any warning flags popped up.

"Why don't you come and see my work? My gallery's nearby."

"Uh..." I kept walking that way because I wanted to go to the bookstore, which was in the direction she was going.

"It's very close."

"Well, I really wanted to go to this bookstore, first." Saw it there. She kept walking and talking. Not wanting to be totally rude, I kept walking.

"It's very close, I'll show you."

"Wait, wait, we just passed the store I wanted to see. How close is it?"

"Just across the street."

That was well over a block away. "Where? I don't see any gallery."

"It's behind the camera store. You go through the camera store and get to my gallery."

Right then, warning flags went up all over my brain. Tired as I was, I could still sense a trap. With my spider-senses a-tingling, I said, "That's too far. I'm not going there."

"But you promised!" She sounded abusive.

"I did not promise."

"Yes you did!"

I'm walking back towards the book store. "You said it was close. It wasn't."

"We don't have to see the gallery. We could go to a club and have a few drinks and just talk."

"No. I don't go to clubs."

"YOU PROMISED!" Now she's really ticking me off.

I step up to the bookstore and she calls me stupid in English and some nastier things in Chinese.

Inside, the store's not at all what I thought it would be. All the books are for learning foreign languages, it seems, with a small selection of books actually in foreign languages. I stay in for a while, then go back on the street.

If that lady bugs me again, I plan to head towards a cop instead of letting things get crunk. As it develops, nothing goes down on the street, so it's all chill.

On the way back, I see this:

It's surrounded by ropes, but nobody there was able to translate it for me. If any reader out there could tell me what it says, I'd be much obliged.

I rounded the corner back on to Donghuamen and decided to take some pics of the night lights there:

While doing that, I noticed this guy:

There's one just like that at a restaurant near my house, "Chubby's". I thought that was kinda cool how the two restaurants halfway around the world from each other had the same little portly chef statue. If I knew then what I knew now... (yes, that's some foreshadowing...)

A little further on, I saw a little shop and thought I'd buy some bananas. I asked for four. The lady whips out her calculator. She types in "40".

Five bucks for four bananas? "Bu!"



"How much you pay, then?" She's pretty ticked.

I type in "2" and leave the calculator behind. I was mad. I'd eaten poorly-prepared corn, been solicited, the bookstore was a bust, and now this lady was trying to hustle me on bananas. I walked away as she called me stupid in English and worse things in Chinese.

A few blocks later, and I'd stopped muttering about the bananas. I took another picture of the night:

And then, I drew up to the Tang Yue and knew I was home, at least my home in Beijing.

It was nice and I thought I'd take some shots of the place in the dark, but they didn't come out very well. I didn't know it, and was on a roll when I asked the lady at the desk if I could take her picture. She freaked and called someone on the phone. Minutes later, the one desk clerk who knew English showed up with her friend.

I had no idea I was getting someone rustled out of her home! I felt awful about it, but they were good-natured about it. I wound up taking their picture:

And then they took mine:

OK, so I'm a ham. Sue me.

I got back to the room, answered email, tried to type things up, and got very very tired after all I'd done that day. I couldn't quite fall asleep, though. At the time, I blamed it on the tea. No worries. I took a melatonin and went to bed. I slept great and did not awake as a pile of powder, so the water did its trick.

I also had clean, shiny teeth for the first time in China, thanks to my toothpaste! Yay for not everyone in China following Mao Zedong's horrendous dental hygiene regimen of only eating green tea leaves to clean his teeth.

by Dean Webb

Hard Landing, Bounced Back

OK, so I admit I had a rough time last night, but finding a beautiful park and monastery today helped me regain my bearings. Once I left the tourist quarter, I was back in China. Where I am right now is some kind of interzone, not wholly in one world or another. There's lots of Chinese here, but also Pizza Huts and Taco Bells. Very confusing. Unlike the rest of China so far, Shanghai seems to be a Pepsi town, not Coke.

I did find my taco today, but it tasted more like an egg roll at times. More on that for later. Just letting everyone know I managed to have a fun day today, once I got things cash-related squared away.

Now to rest and build up energy for supper. Ay ya!

by Dean Webb

24 Nov 2006
Shanghai Homesick Blues

After the peace of Nanjing, Shanghai is a lot of hustle and bustle, not in that order, but all at the same time. Had my credit card declined when I tried to get some gifts for my daughter, so I paid cash, thinking I'd hit the ATM later on... ATM is closed... it'll be open tomorrow, and even if not, I've got enough renminbi to last the rest of the trip if I eat carefully. But Shanghai isn't a city for the broke down and busted. It's shiny, fast, full of foreigners, and loud when your hotel is on the East Nanjing Road pedestrian area. At least there aren't a lot of spitters, so that's keeping the noise level down.

But no matter how many Western-style restaurants are on this road, it ain't Texas. That's right, I miss home right about now. It started on the train ride over from Nanjing and kept going...

I've met Gary P. Nunn a few times before and if I reminded him a little, could claim him as a friend. Therefore, I'll make the borrow of his "London Homesick Blues" for your benefit here. I'll modify and update the lyrics, as appropriate.

Shanghai Homesick Blues

by. L. Dean Webb after ripping off Gary P. Nunn

(to the tune of "London Homesick Blues")

Well, the livin' sure ain't free,

I'm low on renminbi,

In Shanghai I'm an old stray.

Even Qing-era loot went away,

And moved on out to Taipei,

Now I know why.

And I'll substantiate the jivin'

that the Chinese way of drivin'

Is crooked like the Rio Grande.

You can put up your dukes,

And you can bet your boots,

That I'll be happy when I'm back in my land.


I wanna go home with the armadillo.

Good country music from Amarillo and Abilene.

The friendliest people and the prettiest women

You've ever seen.

Well it's hot over here, and I swear,

I wish they'd turn the heat off.

And where in the world is that Chinese girl,

I promised I would email th' other day.

And of the whole damn lot, the only friend I got,

Is a PC and a broadband link.

My mind keeps roamin',

My heart keeps longin'

To be under that Texas star.


Well, I decided that, I'd get my cowboy hat

And go down to Renmin Square Station.

'Cause when a Texan fancies, he'll take his chances,

And chances will be taken, now that's for sure.

And them Chinese eyes, they were eyein' my size,

That some people call high off the ground.

And they said you're from Mei Guo,

'Cause when you come and go,

You always seem to stumble around.



Maybe if I wasn't so tired or hadn't been hustled at the Shanghai train station or if my credit card worked at the toy store or if I had been able to get to that ATM or if they knew how to make a decent TACO around here, I wouldn't feel this way. It's natural to want to see your family when you're away, but when you're missing cheese enchiladas with chile con carne and Mexican rice, you're homesick.

My travel guide says there's supposed to be a Mexican restaurant not too far from here. I'll get some cash in the AM and see what kind of cookin' it really is. I once got served a taco with mustard that was absolutely awful, so I don't think it could be much worse than that... could it?

by Dean Webb

22 Nov 2006
What I Almost Missed and What I Did Miss

I hiked it back up to the north gate, a little ticked about having to go all that way just to get out. I rounded a corner and saw a stretch of trees in between the outer and inner walls on the north side and a sign pointing inward, indicating an imperial garden was on the other side.

Well, I'd come all that way and the City wasn't yet closed, so why not? I checked it out.

I couldn't believe I'd almost missed this. It was like the Forbidden City had great treasures throughout, but to me, this was the greatest of them all. I started to take pictures with almost every step in the now very diffused light.

Beautiful statues next to trees of amazing beauty:

And then trees of unusual, remarkable eccentricity, as if they'd been poured from a vessel:

Gardens of impeccable taste and serenity:

Scholar's rocks of contemplative shape abounded:

And then the batteries in my camera went dead. They'd been dying all day, but now they gave out totally. I wanted to take maybe a hundred more pictures, but had no spare batteries with me. These glimpses will have to satisfy my memory and your imagination for now. I can only ask if any of you reading this go to China to see this place, please take a hundred more pictures of the garden on the north side and send them to me. Just a hundred - I can be happy with that number.

Bewildered and saddened by my loss of camera function, I nevertheless had fallen in love with the Forbidden City. Were I to go to Beijing again, I would bring a box of industrial filter masks and head straight for the Forbidden City after getting all blossoming brilliant and Calgary. I would spend a day there. I would lose myself in that garden once more. I would see the closed exhibits earlier in the day and, at the end, know better than to make for the Donghuamen exit.

I left the Forbidden City and sat on a bench outside.

As I rested before my hike back to the hotel, I noticed this woman standing by a sign with her scooter. It looked to me like a perfect photograph. I had to take it.

I turned on the camera.

The light was green.

I snapped the shot.

The light turned red.

I tried to turn it on again, but it wouldn't get past the startup screen. The batteries were now totally dead.

As it turned out, though, I got the shot:


And then, I headed back. I walked on a path just north of the moat, away from the street. There, at the northeast corner, I saw a devastatingly beautiful scene of a tower and wall reflected in the moat, and I had nothing left to take a picture with. There were two real art students there sketching it. They spoke bad English and I spoke worse Chinese, but we somehow managed to chat about art and Beijing. They were from Nei Mongol, Inner Mongolia, and instead of inviting me to some exhibit of mass-produced arts, they let me flip through their sketchbooks. We traded emails and went our ways.

The path ended and I had to walk back along the street. As I stepped near the street, a flock of desperate peddlers pressed upon me to sample their wares. I had to think fast.

"Nahin bole Anglisi hain!" In desperation, I spat out a phrase in Urdu. Maybe it was bad Urdu, but they weren't anyone to judge. Ignoring them wouldn't work. I was alone, there were many of them, and no other tourists as far as the eye could see in the dusky light. I had to be a non-English speaker.

They tried to bother me, all the same. Then I found a phrase that made them scatter:

"Hafez Allah!"

That's a traditional Urdu bye-bye in Pakistan, which I'd claimed to be from (and, yes, there are guys almost as white as me in north Pakistan), and I said it in a very nice way. But even in China, there seems to be a prejudice against things Muslim. That, or they thought I'd bust out with some religious literature for them to read. Whatever. That phrase worked, that's what I know. Ignoring them is best, but when you can't do that, Urdu is your ticket out of trouble.

I crossed over to Beichizi Daije as soon as I could and walked back to Donghuamen Daije unassailed.

When I got to the hotel, I nearly collapsed. What a day I'd had!

I took only a while to rest, though, as I still had to find something to eat for suppper.

Once I'd loaded up fresh batteries, I was ready to take on the challenges of Donghuamen Night Market...

... or was I?

by Dean Webb

Wandering Like Unto Odysseus

In the midst of my pressing towards the Donghua Gate, I had a sudden urge to go back along a path I once trod.

I had to go to the bathroom. Forget all the sights of the city, some things have a higher priority.

When I got to the bathroom, I was happy to see it wasn't just some wannabe facility: It had been ranked by the Beijing Tourist Administration:

Although, I have to say the standard for bathrooms in Beijing has to be rather low for that one to be a four-star facility. Or maybe this was out of ten... I don't know, any port in a storm and I had to move on.

I started to come across areas which brought together nature and man-made in ways I found pleasing to the eye and the mind.

I saw something else which pleased my mind... would that there were more of these in China...

Now, before I get an earful from the smokers in my audience, let me tell you about the lungfuls I kept getting from the guys in China who like to do chimney impersonations. Just as you can construe a right to puff smoke, I can construe one to not have to deal with the externalities of your smoking. When I go into a smoky bar in the States, I accept I'm going to emerge smelling of smoke. I shouldn't have to make the same assumption when going to a hotel room, restaurant, store, wherever... smoking is all over the place in China, and it's pretty darn stanky here. I know smokers complain about the erosion of their rights to smoke in public, but I now have a new appreciation for the right to breathe clean air in public. The pollution is horrendous in Beijing, so I guess I didn't appreciate clean air until I had to live an extended time without it.

So if you want to smoke everywhere you go, go to Beijing. You might just decide to quit after that air.

A cool bit I found next, complete with unclosed doors, was an exhibition of ancient statuary.

It was in much better condition than its cousin nearby:

There was this wild marble of two dragons escorting a ball of fire across the heavens. They're not fighting, but helping. In the West, we tend to view dragons as Bad Things, but in China, they are symbols of Good Things. I had to learn a new perception to appreciate this work for what it was instead of seeing a spiritual battle.

We could photograph the statues inside. Or at least nobody clobbered me for using flash-free photography to capture this shot:

I took a few others, but included this one because in Academic Decathlon this year, we studied a statue of a long-sleeved dancer that looked very similar to these guys, who I guess were long-sleeved gangsta rappers or something like that. I'm sure the Chinese invented gangsta rap. They invented lots of things, and I'm sure life was hard for an emperor out on the street. So, yeah, Ming Dynasty gangsta rappers, right here, kids.

I moved on and stumbled into an interesting area...

There was an urn with I Ching symbols around the top:

This long gallery...

Right here is where the otherness of the place struck me, even more than for Beijing itself. Beijing was foreign, but it still conformed to patterns of urban activity and behavior. I could deal with that. This place, although called a city, wasn't. It convoluted in ways unnatural for people to develop naturally.

Everywhere were the symbols of bygone power, in Chinese and Manchu:

And yet, there were everywhere the symbols of how that bygone power had to accommodate nature:

These drainage ditches ran across much of the complex. I could see the gutters beneath every now and then when the light caught a glint on some water.

Bear in mind, there have to be modern plumbing facilities to keep that four-star restroom rating.

Those aren't Ming Dynasty pipes, my friend.

Then, I step through a door and see this:

Out there in the open, ruined, there to confront me. I don't know what it was or for or anything about it, just that it was there, it was ruined, and I wondered what it looked like when it was whole. What purpose did it serve?

Why were there a variety of trees planted around it?

What had wrecked it?

Why did it extend beneath the ground?

I don't know. I suppose I'll have to research it later.

Even though ruined, it was beautiful in that it filled me with such wonder and mystery.

The sun was moving down and I was tiring. I decided to keep going east and hoped to get to the Donghua Gate. Along the way, I saw this in a small courtyard:

Heh. Notice the lack of a four-star rating on this facility. Still, it is made of marble and that hole goes down to the gutter system. That had to be for someone important. One doesn't make marble anything for just anyone.

I kept going and stepped into a long gallery between the inner and outer walls. I went south and thought I'd see one more exhibit and go out the Donghua Gate. The announcer had just declared the complex was going to close down soon, so I figured I had made my time.

When I got there, the guy at the gate told me the exhibit was closed. I asked if Donghua Gate was just beyond the next wall. He said Donghua Gate was closed for the day. I'd have to walk all that way back up to the Gate of Military Prowess on the north side and exit that way. That's when the custodian laughed his head off at me.

by Dean Webb

Taking the Back Way

I wondered what to do. If the major attractions had both crowds and construction, why not take a look at where people weren't? I spied a ramp up into nowhere and went up it.

From it, I enjoyed a great splash of color in the gallery.

Remember, that's not yellow. That's gold.

And even in the places tourists aren't flocking, the guards are nevertheless watching:

And take a look at the magnificent stairs of marble. Magnificent isn't strong enough, but it's the best I can do for now.

The problem with some of these back ways is that they end suddenly and force you down a different way. You can't walk straight through from one to another. Oh well. Like walking in Beijing is a surprise.

I came across this next gallery and noticed a lack of gold. I guess it wasn't intended for royal usage.

Although it did offer another amazing view of the sweeping marble landings:

There was a cool bronze vat with lions holding the handle:

Sorry, kids, no climbing into it for neato photos unless you want to haggle the law with the young swains in the third picture in this set. I wasn't in a haggly mood, so I passed on the single best opportunity to get deported in less than 24 hours after my arrival. I mean, I could have pulled a stunt in Tiananmen Square, but any shmoe can come up with that. Climbing into a Qing Dynasty bronze vat, now that takes imagination.

About mid-way through the complex, there's a rest area and gift shop:

But I had no time to mess with gifts. I wanted to keep going and I worked the east side of the place, that being the side closest to my hotel. I figured if it got late and it came time to kick me out, I'd just go out the Donghua Gate (Donghuamen in Chinese) and head out on Donghuamen street (now you know where that street name came from) and stroll back to my hotel.

On the east side is the Hall of Jewellery.

Sadly, it was closing down as I came up to it. Had I skipped the art exhibit, I might have gotten in. No time for regrets, though. There were still other things to do.

Like trip over the bottom of the door frames. Look here:

See the bottoms of the doors? Yeah, about 10 inches up from each one is a big ol' wooden lintel, encased in bronze. Watch your step. In fact, all through the place there are rough patches of untended pavement stones. It's the closest you'll get to rock climbing in the heart of Beijing. Be prepared to watch your step. Stand still if you want to gawk and take a view. When walking, assume nothing and keep your eye on where you're going.

Besides, you have to hold still to get views like this:

Love those interior gates. Too bad they were closing them at the time I was there.

And then I noticed something in a dark corner and had to capture it.

For all the glory and pride embodied in the Forbidden City, there is one rule as true today as when the palace was first built.

It would be nothing without the work of the hands of the nameless servants of the emperors. Say what you will about the accomplishments of this ruler or that one: none of them work alone. It is the people who hold them up.

The emperor's word may have been law, but no edict could stop dust from piling up in the corners without these tools to act as an arm of the executive branch.

by Dean Webb

Crouching Photographer, Hidden Taihe Dian

Wow. What... scaffolding...


I'm so glad I didn't get a recorded tour or hire a guide. I can read up on what I saw on the Internet and stuff, but there was no way I could have gone through the whole Forbidden City because so much of it was under restoration. Therefore, that would have been a waste of cash, and there's no way to know the situation before you get in. I predict it'll all be spiffy by 2008. Until then, be prepared to not see some of the things viewed by tourists of yesteryear.

Mind you, now, there are plenty of impressive sights there, such as this courtyard at the entryway:

But I know this group had to be thinking, "What the hell? I hired a guide to look at THIS? I could look at construction sites back home any time I want! I got construction going on just outside my hotel! Aw, man, this place is a tourist trap..."

Well, they should quit complaining. First of all, setting travel costs aside, it's cheap to get into a place just as fantastic as Disneyland, and a heck of a lot more real than the imagineers of Disney could ever slap together. It doesn't just look like a cool old Chinese palace, it is a cool old Chinese palace. Second of all, there's lots more to see here, even though there aren't any roller-coaster rides.

Some sights I compare to a mental roller-coaster. Just trying to comprehend how someone got the idea for the place and then live in it is amazing.

First the Ming Emperors, then the Qing, lived here in the 9999 rooms, never sleeping in the same one two nights in a row, conducting the affairs of the kingdom if competent, letting advisers run it as they sank into debauchery if not. Nameless and countless concubines tended the grounds as they awaited a night with an emperor that might never happen but once in a life. Guards everywhere to secure the person of the emperor. Palace intrigues. Massive demands placed on the factories to the south to produce the goods necessary to perpetuate the artificial existence of the Forbidden City...

At the center of it all is the Taihe Dian. We're studying it this year in Academic Decathlon, but the best view of it seems to be in our study packet. Here's what I saw up close:

From way back, one can make out the outline of the structure:

There are other places, smaller but similar, at either end of the massive courtyard:

But not all courtyards were accessible:

And now you see why nameless and countless concubines were needed for this place. Grass was a problem 600 years ago as it is now, and without constant upkeep, it seeps past the stones, obscuring the pomp of mankind behind the forces guided by nothing but the dao of the universe. It is a beautiful place, but not eternal. It requires constant care and upkeep to fight back the natural progress of the elements.

by Dean Webb

21 Nov 2006
The Not-So-Forbidden City

Fisher and Toma waved good-bye as I turned towards the Forbidden City and they went back to their hotel.

Fisher cut the good-byes short: "It will close soon! Make your time!"

I couldn't resist the power of a line from the "All Your Base" litany, even though I don't think Fisher intended the hipster reference. All the same, I understood the urgency and we separated.

And then an art student accosted me.

"Would you like to see an art exhibition?"

This was the first time for me, and sure, who doesn't like art?

Well, turns out there are a million of these all over the place, but particularly near the big sights. They bring you in, show you the works, then turn on the sales pitch. Everything looks better during the sales pitch, so it's best not to go into the show in the first place. Some of these are student works, some are professor's works, but they suddenly seem to be done by a professor if you say you like one. I did like a few of them in particular, but not enough to buy. Put another way, I didn't want to buy those before I got there. I wanted a scholar's rock, some mementos for my family, something for my Academic Decathlon team, some Jackie Chan DVDs, some Chinese clothes, some cool posters, and some great memories. Art was not on that list, nor was it something I realized I suddenly needed there in Beijing. I mean, not even the most sensitive of connoisseurs says, "Oh my! I forgot to pack my art! I must buy some now!" They just disparage whatever lack of refinement they notice and appreciate any islands of culture in the sea of barbarity.

I'm not one of those types. I was, in fact, generally impressed with the overall lack of barbarity, relative to the USA. Maybe the people in China just haven't been as continuously commercial as the US has.

Anyway, nice though some of the works were, I didn't really want to buy any and I sure didn't have a good way of bringing them home with me. To save you some time, here's the highlight of the exhibition.

There were also some cool-looking pictures of tigers and horses, but after seeing another one of these, I think there's a "professor" behind each art ring, with different ones of these stashed all over the city. They only have to get you once, and they all compete to be the first to get you. This is the Chinese Art equivalent of multi-level marketing or something. But the art themes are all the same. There are some cool ideas and if it was truly just a student exhibition, no more, I would have really enjoyed my experience. But that high-pressure sale attempt at the end soured it for me. I think it's worth seeing once, just to appreciate the kids' work. But just before the sales pitch starts, maybe have someone in your group start to cough a lot, giving you an excuse to hurry out of there. I don't know how well that would work. Maybe add stomach trouble... nobody over there wants to catch the SARS or the Avian Flu, so they may be happy to let you loose. Just don't fake it too well, or you might face a health authority trying to deport you.

I got out of there in about 12 minutes, and I remembered I had to make my time, so I pressed ahead to the Tiananmen Gate.

I wanted to go up there and take pictures, but I didn't have the time. Through the huge gate I went and into the courtyard south of the Forbidden City.

Inside, I found all manner of helpful people. Unfortunately, they all wanted to help me spend my money on guidebooks (available at Xinhua for 60 yuan), dodgy unofficial native guide tours, cheap junk, and who knows what else. The folks who did know where to go weren't talking:

While I looked around for the ticket place to get inside, I noticed the backside of the Tiananmen Gate, just as massive as the front. Wow.

Ahead of me, a glimpse of the Forbidden City beyond and the crowds pressing forward to take it in. Without a ticket, it would remain as forbidden to me as it was to the peasants of 500 years ago. Where was the ticket office?

I tried three different places before I found it. "Just one" with my index finger extended upward indicated my desire. I had to pay cash - it's cash-only with nearly everything the government does, none of this credit card business. Be prepared for that. Even after I got my ticket, I had to snap a pic of a tower before I went in.

Nothing could prepare me for what was on the other side.

by Dean Webb

20 Nov 2006
I Hope You Accept Late Work...

... because there is no humanly way I can type as fast as I'm experiencing things. However, I am keeping a written notebook and a photo-record of what I'm doing, so I won't forget important things. As I keep it, sometimes I remember another detail, so I make note of that, too. And this after only three full days in Beijing plus a travel day. Thankfully, all I did so far today was make the previous post and pack. Once I check out in a little more than an hour, I have to bum around Beijing until I get to the train station for my trip to Nanjing in a sleeper car. And I pray they have a soft bed in it...

Today? I eat lunch, do something, then eat dinner, then head to the station. That "do something" part has to be low-impact stuff because my legs are done for a while.

We'll see what I settle on...

by Dean Webb

Good Night, Good Morning

Tried changing everything for last night and all my theories came up busted. I still couldn't fall asleep in spite of my exhaustion. I did try sleeping earlier, which meant when I felt frustrated, I had enough time to take a melatonin and hopefully not sleep too long. So far the score is melatonin 3, hard bed 2. But, after a good night's rest, it's much easier to start the day blossoming brilliant and Calgary. And when you hear the horns and the spitting, it's time to start the day.

Before I eat the last of the tangerines and yak cheese for part of my breakfast, I thought I'd dash down some notes of this hotel room I'll be checking out of in a little over four hours. I don't want to criticize it as much as I want to prepare future offbeat travelers. While I'm at it, I'll scattershoot some other ideas that didn't necessarily make it to the pictures...

First, don't plan on doing laundry. Take the extra clothes you need. I'm lucky that the socks and underwear are now almost dry, but if I hadn't done them at 4 AM yesterday, I don't know what I'd do today. Do bring a bit of soap powder, anyway, just in case, but don't plan on laundry. And hang the laundry on coat hangers, not over the shower stall door. Thanks to my wife for that timely suggestion. Without it, I'd be packing soggy things in spare plastic bags. Oh yeah, save all your plastic bags. You always need more plastic bags. You may look like some sort of demented Great Depression survivor, but you will be carrying things well in your plastic bags.

Next, keep a very open mind. You're doing offbeat travel, right? It's so you can experience all kinds of crazy stuff, right? So don't shut your mind to the possibilities that await. It also will put you in a frame of mind where you're willing to learn and admit mistakes.

OK, quirky room things. Some folks suggested the big button on the toilet was for a big flush and the little button for a little flush, and they were right. So I no longer fear the two-buttoned toilet, now that I understand it.

Light switches here are kinda kooky. To get power in my room, I have to stick a card in the holder on the wall. The room key fits there, but so does a business card. I recognized that as being a contraption developed for Orthodox Jews who want to have light on the Sabbath without starting a fire. The electricity is already on, but breaking a flow of electrons to divert it to the power in the room is not considered starting a fire, so that's how the power's switched on. Now, I'm not surrounded by Hassidic Chinese, but I do recognize the technology. It's quirky and cool.

The bed is hard like a very hard thing with a thin layer of cotton. Nice and warm, but very very hard. I got nothing on how to fix a hard bed except the one thing that worked: melatonin for me. Other sleeping aids may work for you, but the chemical ones guarantee your clock stays in step with the folks around you. I suppose calling ahead to get a soft bed would have been another trick, but it's not like they speak lots of English at the desk.

And communications weren't much of an issue once I got here. Gesturing and mime go a long way towards getting good understanding, but some vocabulary is vital to the success of a trip. The Rough Guide phrasebook was a godsend here because it had Pinyin and characters. The Lonely Planet one used to have the Pinyin, but ditched for the edition current to the time of my trip. If you can, practice with people from China - hopefully that region of China - before going over. Make sure you know please, thank you, sorry, yes, no, I must be crazy, good, and bad. Hello and goodbye are also good to know, but master the other ones first. Seriously, saying you're crazy can make everyone laugh and feel at ease in an awkward situation, which can give everyone the patience to go slow and have one more try figuring out how to communicate.

Definitely pack a mental suitcase of patience. If you are patient with others, they are likely to be patient with you. It's their country, anyway, and you're the stranger who doesn't know how to talk or do things right. Patience leads to humility, and humility leads to teachability.

Get a step up/step down converter and universal plug set. I could not write this without my transformer by my side. Check and make sure you get one only as large as you need. Bigger ones are massive, so be prudent.

Bring that extra TP roll and keep it where it won't fall down. The toilet paper holder here fell apart last night in the half-light and I couldn't see where the hotel paper went. Enough said. Be prepared and you won't get caught with your pants down, literally.

Yak cheese = good cheese. I need to get a pound of this stuff to take home. It's hard and can be kept at room temperature without spoilage. Eating it gets you the same benefits it gave the Mongols. Now, you may not desire to drive your enemies before your horses, spoil all their possessions, and hear the lamentations of their women, but if you got that sort of energy, you can take on any number of lesser challenges.

Lamps have weird buttons in odd spots. Fumble around one before giving up. And this is more a hotel rule than a China-only rule. You may not find yak cheese in Orlando, Florida, but I guarantee you there are some crazy lights in the Sheraton there.

The light switch for the bathroom is at the door, not in the bathroom, although there is a phone by the toilet. Now you understand a little more about my semi-dark situation last night...

The teevee is a big ol' widescreen. I had no use for it. I spent my time walking everywhere, seeing things, meeting people, and writing about my experiences. So don't watch teevee. Maybe turn it on to see what's showing, but write down what you were doing so you can read it later. Think of the fun you're having reading this and imagine what it's like to read it after having done it yourself. That's right, this is so much better for me in the long run than wasting time with television. So pack a diary and some pens if you are skittish about taking a computer, but note what happens each day that's remarkable, and you'll be traveling all your life, even at home.

Rooms in Beijing are HOT by default. Cultural preference, I guess. I found myself bundling up for the November chill and stripping down for the HEAT and then bundling up again. Thank goodness I switched off the heater in the room before it took the temperature up to 24 Celsius, which is way hotter than I like when it's cool outside.

People spit in Beijing because of the pollution. Don't judge them. I had to start spitting yesterday in the thick, dusty fog. It helps get the grime off your teeth. You may also want to shower at night after getting covered in dust during the day. I had a similar need in Las Vegas, as it's quite dusty there, too. Like Vegas, Beijing has a desert nearby and when the wind blows in off the desert, it brings lots of polluting dust into the air. Some folks wear masks during the day, and it doesn't necessarily mean they're sick, so, again, don't judge.

Power goes out every now and then. That means you do something other than complain about how you can't use electricity. Run down to the lobby and learn how to complain in a foreign language. Misery loves company.

Although the people here are smaller than the average Westerner, most everything seems to fit. I'm over six feet tall - nearly 2 meters - and didn't bang my head on anything, but I came close while getting into a cab. The cabs are the tiniest things here, I would say, and if someone offers help getting in, it's because they've seen it all go horribly wrong before.

Which reminds me, always accept help from people whose job it is to help you. IT IS THEIR JOB. THEY ARE TRAINED PROFESSIONALS. THEY WILL HELP YOU. I'm so glad I decided to go with that thought. I got some great hot towels on the plane, additional language assistance in foreign airports, good taxis, translation assistance, directions, you name it. If someone offers help and it's not their job, it's part of a sales pitch.

Everything in Beijing is an infomercial, but you can change the channel. You have already seen the art exhibition, trust me. I saw two of them. The first was the student pulling me in and the second was a professor who I thought was going to give me a real tour of a real museum, which he did, but at the end I saw the exact same art I saw before, just done by different people, and got the sales pitch. Thank goodness my wife wasn't here with me, as it gave me the opportunity to become an emasculated American man who could do nothing without his wife's approval. I would check with her and come back later. By the way, honey? Do you want to buy a mass-produced painting of dubious quality that always looks better in the sales presentation than in the hallway at home? No? OK.

If the deal goes bad, expect insults. Sometimes they're oblique, as in the case with the professor. He was a real man because he could buy something like this and not have to tell his wife. I came back with a quick sentence on how culture was different in America and, because I love my wife, I can't do something like that and still feel honest. He pressed his manhood, so I told him the joke about the ultimate blessing and the ultimate curse. (And now I do a brief travelogue...)

The ultimate blessing is to have a British house, a Chinese chef, an American salary, and a Japanese wife. The ultimate curse is to have a Japanese house, a Chinese salary, a British chef, and an American wife.

When I told that, I put emphasis on the American wife part and laughed because I had one, but I know the Chinese salary bit stung him. I don't feel good about that because I didn't intend it that way - just to illustrate my wife's equality as an issue - but that zinger had to touch a nerve. For that, I am sorry. But, he did stop talking and let me go after that.

Which brings me to the persistence of the peddlers. You will say no and they will ignore you. That's part of the way Chinese negotiate, and it drove the US insane during the Korean War. Hold your position - whoever makes the first concession in a negotiation usually gets worse than the person who didn't make the first concession. It's also better to walk away from a bad deal than it is to accept it to appeal some sense of immediate need to feel good. You'll feel cheated if you give in and stronger if you don't.

Often, the first concession is to make eye contact when they speak. Some wait for you to walk past before they call to you in English. If you turn, you speak English to them. Nobody here except the South Asian tourists speaks Hindi/Urdu, so responding in that language got me out of some peddling situations. So did a breezy, "noooooooooo, nooooooooooo" as I look to the clouds and talk about how Zhuangzi refused riches because what he had was sufficient. The best thing was to just not respond in the first place. Look straight ahead or at the building signs. Walk funny, too. I think they can spot Americans by the way they walk.

If you're in a group, have everyone get a different travel guide and compare notes. Each guide has strengths and weaknesses, and there's power in having each person on the team specialize with one guide. For me, traveling alone, I like the Lonely Planet one the best.

I'd also suggest reading about the music, art, history, and folklore of the place you're visiting. That information helps you appreciate what you see and endears you to the locals when they see you appreciate what they have to offer.

If you do come stay at the plucky little Tang Yue hotel on Donghuamen, you can enjoy one of the best locations in the city. Would I come here again? Yes. No hesitation. It's clean, decent, secure, great staff, and I can get over the cold shower and hard bed now that I know what to expect. I'd want it again for its location, location, location. And the blossoming brilliant and Calgary.

I'd want it also because it taught me the benefits of investigating the treasures just next door. I will rave more about it later, but right next door to the Tang Yue is a wonderful upscale restaurant where I had one of the best meals of my life. It is literally next door, as in, exhausted as I was yesterday, I was able to crawl in that door for ninety minutes of serenity. Some bowls of noodles are pathways to private heavens, and I had such a bowl last night. No cab needed, just the willingness to look under my nose for the treasure beneath.

So in your hurry to see big sights, don't forget little ones. That'll help you travel instead of being just another tourist.

By the way, if you head off the beaten path, you find some really honest merchants who won't jack up the prices because you're foreign. There's some great comfort food all along Nanchizi Daije, just around the corner from my hotel. Sure beats getting hassled on the toursity Wangfujing Daije.

Looking back, I never did get to go see the Great Wall, even though I planned on it. I might see it later today, I might not. While it was important to me before I got here, my priorities shifted after a day on my own. I spent all my time here, with one exception meeting friends for supper, within 1.5 miles of my hotel. More to the point: I walked that 1.5 mile stretch between my hotel and the suit place three times while I was here and never really tired of it. The walking seemed daunting each day after the first, and I swore I'd find a cab, but once I got into the people, I forgot my fatigue and had a wonderful time meeting and being met by passers-by. Not everyone was receptive, but those who were made my day. You could say I came here looking for a Great Wall, but instead I found a Great People.

Wow, that's such a metaphor, and I just realized it.

Don't come looking for things that separate. Look for things that bring together - look for ways to use differences to bring together, not drive apart. Yin does not fight Yang all the time. Yin also completes Yang.

When you know that, you will be ready to travel.

by Dean Webb

Got the Posters!

Another "getting ahead of myself" moment: I got some amazing posters today.

I did not buy them at Xinhua Book Store. I bought them from a street vendor and they are genuine relics from bygone days. Because they're not up anywhere else in China, they tell a story of the rise and fall (or fall and rise) of CCP officials through the Cultural Revolution. I've got posters of Mao and Lin Biao, caricatures of Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, then later "rehabilitated" versions of the leaders, and one from the 50's showing the USSR and PRC working together to crush US-UK imperialism.

When I bought them, I collected quite a crowd. I'll tell the whole story of it later on, but these pieces of paper have so much history to them. I can't wait to bring them back and scan them in... or I suppose I could take a picture of them just in case they get taken up at customs. I don't think they will, at least not the ones that don't have controversial figures in them, but I want to be safe.

I plan to email the guy who has the online poster collection to see if he'd like images of them. I'm sure he will, as there are some here that aren't in his collection.

Wow. This is so cool...

by Dean Webb

Got the Suit!

I know I'm getting ahead of myself, but I got the suit today:

If I didn't know any better, I'd say I cut a dashing figure. :-)

by Dean Webb

19 Nov 2006
It's Like No Cheese I've Ever Tasted, Gromit...

We'll see if I sleep better tonight.

I found cheese.

In China, I found cheese.

I have to admit it's like no cheese I've ever tasted, but now I understand why Wallace always gets the shakes whenever he's out of cheese.

Mind you, now, it's not Chinese cheese.

This is Byaslag.

Mongolian cheese.

The cheese of Genghis Khan, made from yak's milk. And it was priced to move. Thank goodness there's a Mongolian section at the market I was visiting this morning.

by Dean Webb

Tea Ceremonies and Best Price for Me

After the shoe factory, Fisher took me and Toma to a truly magical spot: the tea manufactory. These guys were in charge of making the special teas from the special ingredients only the emperor's household could have. Fisher explained about one tea that came from his area that there were 18 trees of that particular variety that were designated for imperial use, only. Teas from those trees now fetch amazingly high prices on the market and usually don't go unsold for more than a few days, maybe even hours, after harvest, when they are at their freshest.

Normally, I don't drink tea. My religion precludes it. However, I once remember a friend of mine who served as a bishop in my church describe a trip to France. He was in the south of the country and it was time for dinner. Everyone got a glass of wine, which we also don't drink, and he declined. Said he'd rather have water.

Then they showed him what passed for water in those parts.

He decided the wine would do less damage than the water and made an exception in that case.

Well, I didn't need to drink the tea, but I was in this country for a cultural experience and as far as no-no's go, I felt a little tea in order to experience something greater could be forgiven. Now that I've had a rough sleep without any tea in my system, I'm pretty sure I'm not being punished by God for breaking a rule.

Amazing how He created the entire universe, yet he cares what I have for lunch... Amazing... and I'm not the only one, either. Lots of people have religious dietary restrictions... it's amazing how He wants us to eat right while we're away from Him...

And that's my point of view, by the way. Nobody else's and it's not official doctrine for anyone. Moving on...

We go to the tea manufactory. There's a huge sign over the top of it and I have to show it to you in two parts:

... aaaand...

It's a cool sign, but not as cool as the insides. There wasn't a "no photographs" sign right away, so I snapped this shot of a full tea set. By the time the ceremony was over, I knew what every one of those things was for.

We went upstairs for a ceremony and as I was about to take another picture, three ladies stepped forward suddenly and asked I not do that.

"Even with flash off?" Fisher translated.

"No, because there are companies who try to duplicate what we do. We don't want them to see this."

OK, I'm cool with that. Camera went off and we went into the tearoom.

Our hostess spoke fluent Chinese. I spoke fluent English. Fisher bridged the gap brilliantly and Toma took turns to practice his English with great results. I understood what was going on. At times, the translation confirmed what I suspected the tea-server was saying.

There is a certain elegance to the tea ceremony, better seen and experienced than described. There is a daoist balance to it all, and a carelessness that would have made the great philosophers of the dao very pleased. The tea is not poured carefully. It spills over the cups and onto the serving-board. Old tea is dumped there, as well, but with graceful ceremony to show appreciation for the tea. In the ceremony, tea is not consumed like a fast-food hamburger. It is savored and appreciated slowly and calmly, with good friends. Never go to one of these alone, especially if you don't speak Chinese.

We sampled seven teas and my favorites were the jasmine teas and the fruit tea. Those I can drink, by the way. Again, God's rules on the matter. There was one tea made with ginseng that allowed me to taste sweetness with my throat. It was wonderful to experience that. We all cried "gan bei!" with every cup and drained them in three sips, like a cultured gentleman is supposed to. We heard stories of which tea was the favorite of which emperor and any other pertinent information in that tea's manufacture or history. There was one tea made from jasmine flowers that has a surprisingly visual element...

... and I could go on and on like we did at the tea ceremony, but I won't. I'll let that ceremony stay their secret. If others reveal it, I'll yet keep my silence. I will mention, though, there were these awesome peanuts and pumpkin seeds prepared with various leaf and flower mixtures that were absolutely divine. They didn't cleanse our palate, but accentuated it.

I should also note the Chinese do not eat pumpkin seeds whole. I do. This is where I know I had to look strange to my hosts. OK, I already look strange at being a foot taller than everyone else, bearded, and goofy-looking, but BESIDES all that, eating the pumpkin seed shells has to confirm in their minds, "Yep. These Americans are crazy."

At the end of the ceremony came the sales pitch. Keep in mind that nearly everything is an infomercial in Beijing. Then again, we were interested in tea at the time and it was quite yummy. I had to buy the fruit tea, but also got the hostess to toss in sealed bags of the peanuts and pumpkin seeds. Thanks again to Fisher for the hookup on those.

I had mentioned to Fisher at one point in the tea ceremony how I wanted to get a Mao Zedong suit.

"Mao Zedong suit? Why?"

"Well, I want to wear it for my students. We were studying China this year, and I'd like to look like Mao Zedong."

"OK, we can get that. Except we call it a Sun Zhongshan suit."

He was right, of course. Sun Zhongshan, also known as Sun Yat-Sen, developed the suit as a hybrid of several styles, hoping to introduce it to China as a means of modernizing their appearance without going totally Western. "Sounds good. Where would we go?"

"Just up the street. There's a tailor, he'll make the suit for you."

"Will it be ready in time?"

"When do you leave Beijing?"


"They can have it ready by then."


So after the tea, we went back to where the Xinhua Book Store was. Just across from it was The Silk Road, the place where I was going to get my suit... and a whole lot more fun.

I should recommend anyone going to China should read Chester A. Karrass' books on negotiation. "Give and Take" is a great introductory primer to the art of negotiation. Even if you forget what you read in that book, you'll remember it either during or after a discussion with a non-state merchant.

This is an example of a non-state merchant. She's a barracuda when it comes to dealing. Very charming, too, which makes her all the more dangerous. She could have ripped me off royally and I would have loved every minute of it. For all I know, she has ripped me off, but not as royally as I could have been. All the same, I loved my experience on the second floor of The Silk Road.

We went up the stairs and she showed us the fabrics to choose from. Of course, she went to a top-line fabric. I was more interested in making sure the cut of the suit would be right.

Her English was quite good, but there were times I let Fisher speak to her in Chinese. Using a middleman with limited authority is a great negotiating strategy. Fisher insisted I wanted a Sun Zhongshan suit, not a Western cut. We explained and then, back to the fabric.

"I can put you in a suit of this fabric for this much!"

She typed in 4400 on the calculator.

Every non-state merchant who deals with tourists has a calculator. These things are daylight robbery if you see them.

"No, that's too much."

"OK, how about this?" 4200.

"No, I can't spend that much. This whole suit was for fun, and I won't have fun if it's too much..." I started to edge away and turn. I really was turned off at the price. Even if I could expense that, I'd feel bad about it.

"OK, for you, BEST PRICE!" 4000.

Now, I've seen the comedian Russell Peters. He's Indian, but he does a hilarious bit about Chinese merchants. His comedy bit was like a script for this lady. I loved it. I really did. Even though I didn't want to pay 4000 yuan for the suit, I wanted to keep haggling.

"How about this fabric? Could I get it for maybe 1600 in this fabric?" I held up the "classic" fabric, the authentic rough woolen Sun and Mao once wore.

"You don't want that," said Fisher. "That gets dirty really easily."

The sales barracuda asked, "How much are you willing to spend?" She handed me the calculator. This is a big concession when the merchant hands you the calculator. You can either get a big move in price or insult them and get a stream of insults in a variety of languages.

I typed in 2000.

She went to one fabric and held it up. "How about this?" It felt great. Not as intensely great as the cashmere wool she originally tried to sell me, but great. Not great enough to be a wall or a pyramid, but close. Fisher nodded his approval, meaning it wasn't going to get dirty easily.

"It's good. I like it."

She typed out 2200.


She went up to get the tailor.

This man is an artist.

I can sense that sort of thing.

I could tell he despised me as a customer, even though he liked me as a person. The only thing he loved were his suits. That is a true artist. I was glad to have him make my suit. I trusted him to do an awesome job.

He whipped out his tape, ran it all over me, had a few questions about how I liked the cut, commented on how I need to exercise more, and dashed out all the numbers on a pad once he had them all. He didn't need to write them down as he took them because he kept them all in his head.

When he was considering the pants, the sales barracuda was holding up a pair with pleats and said something about them. He kept insisting, "Sun Zhongshan! Sun Zhongshan!" She kept pushing the issue of pleats, and he said, not louder, but more final, "SUN ZHONGSHAN!" and set his pen down forcefully and folded his arms.

I told you this guy was an artist. Sales backed down and art prevailed. With that settled, he took his things and went back upstairs to his part of the shop. I paid and the barracuda tried to sell me another suit.

I want her working for me one day if I ever have to sell anything. I know I'll pay a lot in salary, but I know she'll earn every bit of it.

We bid farewell to The Silk Road and went back out into the street.

"So, Fisher, is The Forbidden City next?"

"Well, you took a long time getting your suit, so we can't go with you, I'm afraid."

I didn't argue, since he'd been so helpful. And we did haggle a lot...

"We'll walk back up that way. You'll go see it, there's still time, but I have to get back to my hotel."

And so we went back up Qianmen Daije to the world of tourists and the traps that awaited them.

I'll always remember my time on that side street of the Ming manufactories, even though that street will one day cease to be the place I remembered.

As I parted, I took this shot. Toma and Fisher are on the left side, kind of obscured. It's crowded, dusty, and friendly. I remarked to Fisher, "It's the Chinatown of Beijing!" He laughed and agreed.

Back to Tiananmen and the walls of the Forbidden City, we talked about Chinese art, music, history, and culture, and had a great time of it. We all taught each other some new things and I was genuinely sad to see Fisher go. I knew I would catch up with him later in Shanghai, but promise of future reunions can only soften, not remove, the pain of parting with a good friend.

by Dean Webb

The Last Days of the Ming Factories

If this part of the blog makes you want to head to China to see these things, you need to go there NOW. As in today, because these are all going away.

Well, maybe this scene isn't going away:

I mean, rows of bikes in front of small shops is totally Beijing. That's staying. What I'm talking about is the architecture above those rows of bikes and tiny shops:

I can't remember which shop that went with, but this tiny street was full of those things. Some had preserved manufactories inside, but nearly every building had something ancient about it. Yes, they were maintained well for the most part, but the underlying building and its use went beyond any human lifespan... they go back to the days when the Ming Dynasty moved the Chinese capital from Nanjing to Beijing and created the Forbidden City. Outside of Indian settlements, there's nothing like that anywhere in America. America is a land of wandering through wilderness, looking for something. Beijing seems to be a place of knowing where you are, looking all around yourself. We all search, but in different ways.

Our first stop was the Xinhua Book Store. It's run by the government, so no haggling. Just pay the price as it's marked and you're good to go. I like that. I hate when merchants start me off at the "Hahaha you're not from here, are you?" price. Inside, I found a bunch of movies and CDs, all legitimate editions. The government there frowns on piracy. That doesn't mean you won't hear, "Hey mister! You want English DVDs? Real American movies!", just not in the Xinhua store.

The prices were great. I paid the equivalent of two dollars for most things, three for the CDs. The CD sets had either 2 or 3 CDs in them, so they were excellent bargains. I picked up music by Baihuqiufo and some Chinese classical guqin music. The Baihuqiufo group is modern and has a rock-flavored pop sound. I loved it. The guqin is a zither-like instrument I got to know through Academic Decathlon and I must confess I've fallen deeply in love with its sound. Xinhua's definitely the place to get some Chinese music CDs.

The movies turned out to be hit-and-miss. I just now checked them out to see if they played OK, and of 5 Jackie Chan movies I got, only 3 played properly. The other two may do OK on my DVD player at home, but at $2 a pop, I'm not going to hassle with the return. I know I could get 4 ears of corn at local prices for that kind of money, but I'll pass. All the same, the ones that do work are full of chopsocky goodness, with or without subtitles.

Thus loaded down with mystical treasures from uncharted Asia, Fisher took me deeper into the factory street.

I wish I could remember better the events of the day, but many factories we entered prohibited photographs, so I only have the exterior shots to go by. One really wild place was the royal pharmacy:

Inside on the first floor was a normal drug shop, but upstairs... upstairs was the museum of medicines. There were priceless specimens of the most valuable of traditional Chinese medicines. There were also very pricey specimens for sale and at prices I wouldn't dare ask my boss to expense. I mean, sable hats from Russia don't run as high a price as some of the ginseng roots for sale there.

In one display case was an entire deer head. This is incomprehensible to a foreigner who doesn't know a few things about Chinese medicine and is still pretty hard to wrap your brain around if you do. I just have to keep reminding myself that to them, it makes sense. My desire to put butter on vegetables has to be odd to their eyes. The great philosopher Zhuangzi would probably comment, "Whatever floats your boat, dude." Of course, I translate Zhuangzi's thoughts in a loose manner, but I think I'm true to his spirit.

If you keep an open mind, you can see things like this and marvel at them and learn something about yourself and the world before it's gone - or you're gone. Because even in a civilization as old as China's, nothing is permanent. All that construction barely 50 meters away was proof of that.

Further down the street, we came upon the first-ever movie theater in China.

There's a wonderful little film called, "Shadow Magic" about the introduction of movies into China in the very late Qing period and how they symbolized the coming wave of modernization which eventually swept the Qing from power. Although not a documentary, the film remains true in its essence and is as beautiful an introduction to China as any foreigner could see, and I strongly recommend you go see it. When I saw this place in Beijing, I felt an attachment to it because of that film, and it made the moment special and memorable when I made that connection.

Here's the rest of that building. It's huge. Not Tiananmen huge, but still huge.

After the movie theater, our next stop was the royal shoe manufactory. Inside, there was a traditional shoemaker team, showing how their art was once practiced.

Once practiced? I'm sorry, it's still done that way for those who want to buy handmade shoes, which were for sale at that store. There were functional shoes, decorative shoes, collectible shoes - I mean, come on, now... who binds their feet anymore? Yet, those shoes were there for sale.

The cutest were the pink and yellow baby shoes. You may have guessed pink is for little girls, but wonder why yellow for boys? Well, the first part of the answer is that China's not Europe, remember? In China, yellow is a royal color and the boys' shoes - huge boatlike things - are colored yellow and imprinted with the character for "king". They look awesome. It made me wish they made slippers like those in my size.

"King." I could so get used to that.

Anyway, past the Qing-style court shoes nobody could really wear anymore were the most famousest shoes of all in China.

That's right. You're looking at Chairman Mao's shoes. I can't photograph his body in the mausoleum, but his shoes are here for all to see, provided you know how to find the place. His shoes are flanked by Zhou Enlai's and Deng Xiaoping's.

Seriously, I really paused to reflect on this exhibit. There's a lot not only in what's on display, but what's not on display. Officials who betrayed Mao are nowhere to be seen. This includes their footwear. The Communist Party of China puts its best foot forward in its official materials, and it makes sure that foot wears the shoe of a true party loyalist.

by Dean Webb

Pardon Our Dust

South on Qianmen Daije...

It's an extremely dusty place, not for the faint of lung. While north in Tiananmen and the surrounding districts there were a fair number of foreigners, Qianmen Daije looked extremely local. Nobody was going in or out unless they knew exactly what they were doing there.

And I mean exactly with no amount of overemphasis possible. Looking for that shop you stopped by last year? Here it is:

How about that cafe where you could sit and talk for hours? Well, you can still sit for hours, but only because the concrete delivery was late:

I've been at malls and shopping areas with cute "pardon our dust" signs before, but this was an urban makeover on a scale I've never before seen, and I've lived in Dallas nearly all my life. There's always something getting knocked over to build up something new, but not an entire street length. If you've ever played SimCity, this is what it looks like from a Sim's-eye-view when you hit pause and get crazy with the bulldozer tool and do some rezoning, then let the time run normally again.

This place was hopping. Bricks and construction material everywhere. Sometimes, it blocked up the whole sidewalk, forcing pedestrian traffic into the street.

That's not so bad in Beijing, though. Everything seems to flow around the person who is at one with the traffic. Seriously, this is daoism meets asphalt. I'm not kidding. If you freak out and jump to one side, you're going to eventually die. If you keep walking slow and steady, the city bus will pass a few inches from you and do you no harm. If you do have to run across a street, just be sure to beat the buses. If there are buses and bicycles heading for you, don't worry about the bikes. Get past the buses and take your chances with the more maneuverable 2-wheelers.

And though cars won't stop for pedestrians, they do slow down.

Slowdowns aren't always voluntary, though. Sometimes, they just have to happen. Like here:

I don't know exactly what his beef was with the driver, but he managed to block up traffic for three blocks, at least. Hard to tell in the construction haze.

Heading down the street, I saw a lady like this one, selling corn and sweet potatoes.

This one's actually in the factory district, but her stand looks just like all the others.

Now, you need to know something important about me. I love corn. Absolutely love it. I had to have some. So I approach the vendor and point to the corn. She says a number and Fisher translates, "Three yuan. That's not right. She raised her price because you're a foreigner. Watch, let's have Toma buy some from the next vendor."

"OK." I said that a lot. Fisher had great suggestions all day long.

Toma hits the next vendor and scores an ear for one yuan. Hahaha! The joke was on the system because I ATE THE CORN! Well, some of it. There wasn't any butter on it.

Chinese are notorious for their lactose intolerance and I have to confess I haven't had any dairy since arriving here. Maybe that's why I've been having trouble sleeping... cheese withdrawal symptoms... don't laugh. The casein proteins in cheese contain opiates, called casomorphins. Go ahead, google it up. I'll wait if you must go there. But back to the corn. No butter and it wasn't a sweet variety, so I didn't have much fun with it. Oh well. At least I got a good deal on it. And there was so much more going on, I wrapped up the corn and put it in my pocket for later.

I suppose if it had butter on it, that would have been a disaster, but if it had butter on it, I would have inhaled it so it wouldn't need to go in my pocket. Next time, I'll get the sweet potato. I don't need butter to enjoy one of those, and they sure do smell good...

After the corn purchase, we went a few more meters to a break in the massive construction, turned right, and entered the ancient factory street.

by Dean Webb

Blossoming Brilliant and Mr. Bean

I made sure not to have any tea today. I still had trouble sleeping and I didn't want to take anything for it because I didn't want to sleep to noon again. I went to sleep around midnight and let a movie play. Sometimes that helps me sleep. And it did. I know I didn't hear the movie end, so I know I slept sometime after midnight to about 2:15 AM. One sleep cycle. Pfeh. I tried falling asleep again and didn't open my eyes until I felt I couldn't keep them closed any longer. That was 4:23 AM.

So I woke up and did what anyone would do in China at 4:23 in the morning. I took a shower, got all blossoming brilliant and Calgary, then started a load of whites in the sink.

Well, I had to do them eventually. Part of my cramming everything into one carry-on meant doing a load of socks and underwear along the way, so it might as well be now.

I stoppered up the sink, ran the water, and dumped some of my detergent into the basin and as it filled, I reflected on why I just couldn't seem to fall asleep. Was it the hard bed? That may be a big part of it. The excitement? OK, potentially. Missing my wife and kids? Could be a factor. No ceiling fan? I'm used to that at home, so sure, although I haven't had it on much lately. I keep coming back to the hard bed, though. I hope the sleeper train to Nanjing lets those rails lull me to sleep.

Anyway, I got cracking on the laundry. Stuff went in stanky and came out fresh and clean-smelling, so I figure that means they're clean. I set them on a towel as I did all the washing. Then I got ready to rinse. I lifted up the stopper in the sink and...

No. I didn't. The stopper didn't come up. It stayed down. There was no way to pull it back up.

Wait. Sometimes, the pipe directly under the sink has a little catch that can push the stopper up manually and...

No. It didn't. That stopper was down for good. I might have been able to pry it up with a knife, but if the TSA wasn't going to let me fly with toothpaste, do you think they were going to let me carry a knife on board that would be capable of prying open a stopper? I think not.

So as the soapy water slowly drained out of the basin like a glacier on barbiturates, I had to figure out how to rinse the soap out of the clothes. That's kind of important so as to avoid itchiness when wearing them.


Well, there was the shower...


Since the shower floods regularly, I decided to lay out the laundry on the shower floor and run the water. The shower backed up and they were getting good and rinsed.

Then I had to turn off the water...


If I opened up the door all the way, I'd get totally wet when I hit the faucet valve.


I looked around my room and saw my cane. Bingo. At the cost of one wet cane, I cracked the shower door and pushed the water off. Then, all I had to do was step in, wring out the laundry, and hang it out in the bathroom.

I know that's very third world of me in a Mr. Bean sort of way, but hey, I have to play the cards I've been dealt.

And, no, I didn't take pictures of my laundry. The last thing I need is to be fired and the headlines of the local fishwrapper to read, "Teacher Fired in Internet Underwear Scandal". If I get fired, it won't be for that, I assure you.

by Dean Webb

Tiananmen and Qianmen

We crossed the street near the countdown clock and headed into Tiananmen Square. This place is supposed to be able to hold 1,000,000 people. I've never been in an area designed for a crowd like that before. I had no idea how to comprehend it. Mentally, I knew, yes, a cool million could fit there, but I'd never been there or to anywhere like that.

Once I was in, I got an idea of the size of the place. It is huge. Of course, the Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi would have said it's only large relative to me and that it is small relative to something even larger. While true, it minimizes that, in fact, I wanted to emphasize its relative hugeness and not its absolute hugeness. Philosophers are find and dandy most of the time, but when they interrupt a good story, well, they've overstayed their welcome.

Tiananmen Square is huge. Something like 600 meters by 800 meters or close to those dimensions. It really can hold a million people. It looked like there were many thousands there when I visited.

In the background is the monument to those who perished in the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945. We're talking millions of casualties. The only other nation that came close to the human losses China endured in World War Two was Russia. Both the Nationalists and the Japanese were very cruel to the peasants of China. The Communists sought instead to organize them and treat them humanely. This is one reason the Communists eventually won the Civil War which immediately followed the end of World War Two.

As the smog cleared, I wanted to get an idea of how long the place is. I'm not even at one end, I'm almost halfway in, and still the opposite end fades into the horizon.

In the square are two examples of socialist realism monumental sculpture. One is a monument to the workers of China:

And the other is a monument to the soldiers of China:

Both are set hailing the direction of Mao's Mausoleum. While I prefer art deco to socialist realism, they are impressive sculptures all the same.

Toma wanted to see Mao's body and I was up for that, too. Fisher had already done it before, so he waited outside the mausoleum. And, no, they do not call it "The Maosoleum" there. This is Beijing, not Las Vegas.

To see the First Chairman, one must get in line before the exhibiting hours end. This is usually early, so it's good we got there when we did. One stays inside the yellow lines and walks up to a little flower booth. Those who want to spend a little money to buy a flower may do so. After that, we walked briskly into the mausoleum and entered a room dominated by a huge white statue of Mao Zedong on a chair. The backdrop had a nice daoist feel to it and there were thousands of yellow flowers at the feet of Mao's statue. Those who laid flowers went to see Mao one way and the rest of us saw him on the main route, which meant less time lingering before Mao.

Now, I don't want to belittle the devotion the Chinese have for Mao. If George Washington were on display in Washington, DC, you betcha there'd be lines of people miles long every day to see him. To China, Mao is a father of the country, no question about it.

But what about my impressions of the experience? To me, Mao is a figure of history, his body something to see while in Beijing. He's dead and his body is mummifying, so there are natural consequences of that. I heard some people later say there's a plan to bury him finally in advance of the 2008 Olympics. I don't know about that and my Internet's down as I write this, so I can't really check that rumor out.

When I left the mausoleum, I turned and took a photo of the crowd of departing well-wishers:

Once out of the tomb, Fisher joined us again and we headed south.

"Hey, would you like to see buildings 700, 800 years old? You have to see them now before they're gone."


"For the Olympics. They're going to be torn down for new construction. These buildings were once factories that produced the goods for the Forbidden City under the Ming and Qing."

Wow. That sounded totally cool and wasn't even in my guidebook. "Yeah, I'd love to see them."

And so it became apparent to me that Beijing's struggling with the conflict between preserving the past and going forward to make a profit. Many cities struggle with that issue and while one can demand a premium be placed on preservation, money talks. It talks loudly. So off we went, further to the south.

On the way, we came to the Zhengyang Gate, part of an outer wall that once ran around the Forbidden City. Fisher pointed out that that wasn't an off-shade of yellow on the building. That was gold. In the Forbidden City and on Tiananmen Gate, same thing. Gold, not yellow.

Nearby Zhengyeng Gate is a subway entrance. We used that to go under the otherwise impassible street and emerged on the other side of the Qianmen area. Qianmen is the name given to the Zhengyang Gate and the Arrow Gate, which served as the outermost wall for the Forbidden City. While Zhengyang has the imposing might of imperial majesty going for it, Arrow is all business.

Before we took in Arrow, though, I saw a blind beggar tuning up his erhu. I paused to listen to what he had to play.

He played well, well enough for me to give him a little money. Fisher and Toma at first thought I shouldn't, but figured it would be OK. I thought so, too. It's not like he was begging with his hands. He played his music and the music did the asking.

You may have noticed a bit of Arrow Gate in the Erhu pictures. Here's a full view of the imposing fortress.

Compare it to the full view of Zhengyang, from our vantage.

Zhengyang: Big and important, but useless in a fight. Arrow: All those windows and crenelations and battlements and bastions are for the business of war. By the way, to the right of Zhengyang is the subway entrance. Remember that if you're going that way. Behind both is the top of Mao's Mausoleum.

And although, yes, Arrow Gate is pretty, every window in there is functional and is a spot for an archer to ply his trade, hence the name, "Arrow Gate".

Of course, anyone going against it in battle probably would never live long enough to get that kind of a view. Most would see what we saw after we dodged six lanes of buses and got to Qianmen Daije:

And even getting that close was an iffy prospect for the would-be attacker. But now, it's kept only as a monument to how distant the people once were from their imperial lords. Anyone can gawk, take photos, and roam all over it, within bounds of historical preservation conventions as applicable to national monuments and all... but, still... all that pomp and glory in the past is so much camera fodder for the rubes, and I admit to being one of those very rubes myself. I'm not a nobleman. I'm a commoner with middle-class aspirations, which means I'm still a commoner. I have hope for the future though, which I don't know if the peasants under the Ming and Qing had.

I know Fisher and Toma had hope for the future. It was clear the economy of China is growing in Beijing and there's an excitement for those whose boats are lifted in the rising tide. There are leaky boats which won't rise, and the Chinese will see that when their first recession since Deng's reforms in 1979 hits them. Recessions come to everyone who walks down the capitalist road: how the Chinese deal with them will be important for their future as a nation. I wish them well, because they seem to be in an awful hurry about building their future.

Speaking of which, we now turned to face Qianmen Daije:

Most of the time, in the West, traffic is routed around major construction zones. In Beijing, it's routed through them.

by Dean Webb

The Fisher King

After the hearty breakfast, I set out to see Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City. But I wasn't above taking a few shots of life in the big city.

I tried to think of what city I'd been in that looked like Beijing, but after this picture, I decided Beijing looks like Beijing. It's not trying to copy anyone else. It's proud of who and what it is and makes no apologies. With all the street vendors who keep hitting me up to buy Forbidden City guidebooks, it practically sells itself. Here's another view from the corner by the Wangfujing Snack Shop:

I really felt I was in more than just a Chinatown. The whole town was China. And, apparently, members of the gymnastics team have formed street gangs to buy smokes on the sly while their coaches aren't watching. Although I myself am a coach, I decided it best not to intervene. There weren't that many of them and, according to the law of stormtroopers, would be very tough in a fight. Were there 100 or more of them, I would have cleaned house. With only three, I had to be careful, lest I find out their Kung-Fu was more powerful than mine.

I walked the rest of Wanfujing to Fuxingmennei Daije, this HUGE street that runs between Tiananmen Square and Tiananmen Gate. There is no crossing over it. There is no going around it. There is no going through it. You gotta go under it, but I had no clue about this just yet.

I rounded the corner to walk up the Fuxingmennei and admired the view. I passed two guys walking together and one said, "Hello."

I replied, "Hello."

"You are very tall."

"Yes, I am."

"Where are you from?"


Now, this was about the second person on the street who said something to me so far that day. I had not yet been overrun by street peddlers, so I wasn't hostile to the idea of having a chat. As it turned out, the young chap was named Toma and the other fellow with him was his cousin Fisher. Fisher was in Beijing on business and also had some time to show Toma around. We talked a while and Fisher sort of adopted me for the day and I'm very glad he did.

Toma's on the left, Fisher's on the right.

No, not the person scowling a little on the far right. Or the person with just an arm on the farthest right. The affable chap making a V with his fingers in the center right. That's Fisher. And Toma's next to him, not the fellow in the left background walking towards the scowler. Got that straight? Good. Because they were great guys and I'd hate to have you mix them up with someone else.

We head up the street and Fisher points out the new Internal Security building across the road:

Very Orwellian, thought I, but then again, China *is* a communist nation, complete with massive state buildings. I wasn't surprised to see something as imposing as that. As we walked along, Fisher took me through an underground passageway to get to the other side of Fuxingmennei. I titled this entry "The Fisher King" because, like the character in the Arthurian Legends, he gave me a quest to fill and helped me along the way to find my grail. Well, not just one grail. Several, really. So, secret underground tunnels fit in perfectly with this chivalric metaphor.

We emerged to see a beautiful line of trees and the museum on the other side of Tiananmen Square. And that's not fog obscuring the view. Beijing has a lot of pollution, which affects visibility as you can see. Or, to be precise, not see. Nevertheless, one shouldn't be afraid to breathe or take pictures there.

Before we crossed over into Tiananmen Square, Fisher pointed out to me the Olympic Countdown Clock. This is a city that's getting ready for the Big Games. In fact, they plan on emptying out the city prior to the games. Nearly EVERYTHING will be closed and as many people as possible given holidays to make room for the spectators. Only cars with special license plates will be allowed on the street. They do NOT want to see a repeat of what happened to Atlanta.

I think Beijing will be ready by then. Goodness knows they're building enough here. I'd say all the cranes and crews reminded me of Houston, but I remember I'm not comparing Beijing anymore. So now Houston's going to have to remind me of Beijing, it seems.

by Dean Webb

Bu Dien

Before I talk about yesterday, I should talk about this morning.

Last night, I had trouble falling asleep because of the excitement of the day... maybe I was also a little too tired... maybe it was the tea. I've known people who can drink coffee and pass out but tea keeps them wired something fierce. I've never drunk tea, so maybe the small cups I had of it yesterday at the tea ceremony (yeah I went to a tea ceremony and I'll tell you about it later) did a number on me. I finally fell asleep around 2 AM and slept until 11:23 AM. When I woke up, there was no power.

I looked it up in my phrasebook: bu dien was the Chinese term for my situation.

Kinda hard to get blossoming brilliant and Calgary with bu dien, but I did my best.

When I got back from my day's wanderings, the power was back on. Then I tried checking email and bu dien again. Then it came right back on. Now I can blog again. Yay.

by Dean Webb

18 Nov 2006
A Hearty Breakfast

Shower done, it was time to hit the streets for some real food. Pocky just wasn't going to cut it.

As I left my room, I noticed this on the wall:

And, yes, that's the color scheme throughout the hotel. In the rooms, it's solid off-white. In the halls, it's a regular circus.

Anyway, I don't know much about reading Chinese, but apparently, if you eat food and leave your coat on your chair, the staff will don a hat and shades and swipe your wallet. Moreover, if you then eat a meal and tip your staff, they're only going to go out and get roaring drunk and kill someone when they drive themselves home and you didn't really want to be a MURDERER, did you? SO NO TIPPING, GOT IT?

I suppose I could have walked up there to read the English on the sign, but I was hungry and in a hurry for food. The graphics are clear enough, I should think.

Downstairs, I found a desk clerk who knew some English. Yay! She was able to show me on my Lonely Planet™ map o' Beijing where the hotel was on Donghuamen Daije and get me oriented. That made the whole day possible. THANK YOU DESK CLERK! XIE-XIE!

Outside, I saw this:

And then turned to look the other way and saw this:

Kind of a funky little neighborhood with lots of street traffic. The kind of neighborhood I like. Reminded me just a little bit of Austin, Texas or Greenville Avenue in Dallas. Made for a very pleasant scenic stroll eastward in search of food. On the way down Donghuamen, I saw the Donghuamen Night Market, where I planned to go later on in search of fried grasshoppers. For now, it was empty, it not being night and all. I kept going down Donghuamen until I got to Wangfujing Daije and hung a right.

Wangfujing Daije was blocked off as a pedestrian-only area, which meant I had zero chance of being massacred by a crazed bicyclist or taxi driver. In China, the "Walk" signs are just suggestions. If you see a vehicle coming, MOVE! The thing with the biggest wheels, wins.

Wangfujing is a pretty street in the daytime, as you can see below, but I had a suspicion it would show a livelier side at night. I would return and investigate. I would also return to search for toothpaste. This tiger's teeth yearned for brushing.

I continued down the Wangfujing to look for a little shop just north of the Beijing Hotel, Wangfujing Snack Street. Thanks again to my Lonely Planet™ map o' Beijing, I went 'round the correct corner and found it, right next to a foot massage parlor.

A word, first, about Chinese massages: I had students warn me it was best to not get a massage anywhere unless I understood the language really well. Although I think I could use a foot massage now, I'll heed their advice.

But back to the food...

You know how you're supposed to be able to tell how good the food is at a Chinese restaurant by counting the number of Chinese people who eat there? That doesn't really work in China. I mean, they're all Chinese, practically. I suppose if the place is overrun with tourists, it's a bad thing, unless it's a great restaurant and is in all the guidebooks. Anyway, see for yourself: a for-reals Chinese restaurant with for-reals Chinese food. Of course, over there, they just call it "food"...

I ordered at the door. The menu had English and Chinese on it. I saw "Pork and Eggs" and figured, that has to be it. I ordered it. The waitress pointed at "Rice" and I had that, too. To drink? I chose a Coke. I chose that because I did not want beer or wine or coffee or tea.

After I ordered, the waitress showed me a table and I sat down to take in the scenery while I waited for my food. As I ate, and more on the food later, all the waitresses converged on a table to do up their ponytails, apply makeup, and do text messaging. I guess it was an official ponytail break or something like that.

But back to the food.


Swimming in delicious grease, there my pork and eggs were. Before I touched them, I had to snap a shot:

SHA-ZAMMM! Now that's what I call a hearty breakfast! Sticky rice, pork and eggs cooked with bean shoots, zucchini, and several types of Chinese mushrooms, washed down with Chinese Coke, complete with sugar cane instead of corn syrup and a real pull-top lid. I hadn't used one of those since I was a young teenager. For all you young teenagers out there, best to have an oldster explain to you how to open one of those babies.

I think that was a real pleasure, too, to drink a soda without gouging my lip from the pop-top contraption. I had to drink it that way because when I bent my bendy straw, it lost all structural integrity and failed to operate within its design parameters. Not a good bendy straw...

BUT WHAT GREAT EGGS! WITH PORK! Oh man, that hit all kinds of spots. It was food wisely chosen, for it saw me through the rest of the day. Some of you may not like greasy food like that, but I sure did. I'd just have to find an aid to digestion later on that day, that was all... and China is nothing if not for its foods touted for their enhancement of digestion!

But where would I find them? To answer that, I would be blessed to meet Fisher and Toma, two great guys from Shanghai, but that's for my next blog...

by Dean Webb

Chinese Restrooms

1. Bring your own toilet paper. The hotel I'm at has regular TP, but they ran out: no extra rolls. Thank goodness I came prepared.

2. No hot water in some of these. Call ahead if you're picky about that sort of thing.

3. Adding to the strangeness, there was a towel folded up by my bathroom door. I wondered why until I took a shower. Turns out, the shower is connected to the toilet and the shower door does not stop the water. That means when I took that shower, it flooded the bathroom. It drained out dry, but not quickly. Therefore...

4. Shower procedure: Get wet, turn off water, soap and shampoo, rinse, turn off water again. No luxuriating. Then again, one doesn't really luxuriate in ice-cold tap water, does one? I think the impending worldwide water shortage could be taken care of by getting everyone to quit taking hot showers.

5. There are two buttons for flushing on top of the toilet. I have no idea what the difference between hitting both or one or the other is. I'm not really paying attention as I flush. Researching this issue could bring on the impending worldwide water shortage. It doesn't seem to make a difference, but then I wonder why there's two buttons there in the first place...

6. The sink... the faucet's not really attached to the sink. It's held in place by a lot of caulking. That means it wobbles a bit when I turn it on or off. Not that I have anything against wobbliness... some of the best things I've eaten were wobbly... so now I have wobbly water.

by Dean Webb

Travel Day

After boarding the flight to Japan, we had a meal and then the plane went dark. I popped a melatonin pill and hoped to have a nice, long rest. I'd taken melatonin before and it had great results with no side effects. For those who don't know, melatonin is the hormone that induces sleep. It's totally natural and works every time. It dissipates when the body receives light, however.

Now, that's usually not a problem in a dark place or when you want to wake up in the morning. But about 3 hours after I hit the hay, some yahoo at the other end of my row decided it would be great fun to open a window and look out at the Pacific Ocean. She let in a ton of sunlight, all I needed to pop out of my sleep, all to see a BUNCH OF WATER. Next time, lady, you could get the same effect by dumping a lot of blue food coloring into your bathtub and waving cotton in front of your eyes.

All right, so I'm awake. I do the math and decide to switch over to Beijing time. Suddenly, my 3:41 in the PM becomes 5:41 in the AM. So I'm an early riser as my day starts over again.

After that, I check what's on the in-flight movies. On the way to Asia, it's "You, Me, and Dupree". Great. I already own that Steely Dan song, I don't need to see an uninspired movie based on it. I confess I did look at other people who were looking at it, but I didn't listen to it myself. This is a third of the way to Japan, so I have a lot of time to kill ahead of me.

So I decided to gnash my teeth a while over having the TSA take up my toothpaste. Even though it wasn't a full tube, because it was ORIGINALLY 4.5 ounces, it fell on the terror side of the equation and at an orange level of alert, we can't take any chances with TOOTHPASTE. I know Mao Zedong once asked, "Does a tiger brush his teeth?" Well, this tiger brushes his teeth. I now need to find toothpaste in Japan or China. Grrrrrrr!

Just over 2 hours later - 8 AM Beijing time - we have a ham and cheese sandwich for breakfast. Maybe for other people on the plane it was supper, but I viewed it as breakfast. We weren't yet to the International Date Line, but almost there. The flight view video showed the outside temperature at -72 degrees F and our airspeed at over 500mph, which made me very glad we can't open anything more than the shade on the window, or that yahoo at the end of my row would have opened that, too, and let all the hot air outside, and then we'd be wearing those stupid masks for the rest of the trip.

So, I kicked back, rearranged my carry-on so I'd have more leg room, and started into my mom's novel. I loved reading it and wound up learning a lot about her as a person. It's interesting when you find out your parents are people like yourself and it helps you to understand them and thereby love them more. That was a great experience for me, and it's just beginning.

So I finish the book, we eat pizza for the last meal before touching down at Narita, and I decide to watch the Japanese-language program on the in-flight entertainment. In the mix, there's a game show that's a mix of Mythbusters, Alton Brown's Good Eats, and Sabado Gigante, a Mexican variety show. That's the best way to describe it. I have no idea what they were saying exactly, but it was lots of fun to watch.

When I saw a group of golfers teeing-off about 50 feet from the landing strip, I knew we were in Japan. I had my suspicions, what with the drop in altitude and the sudden appearance of land, but this confirmed we were landing in Japan and not Siberia.

In Narita airport, I tested the cheapo batteries I'd bought for my camera. They didn't do a thing. Phooey. I bought a whole box of 40 for $4.99. Never buy anything at sales again... In the airport, I blew 1200 yen on some Fujitsu camera batteries, and you can tell Mr. Fujitsu I enjoyed his batteries very much. They worked great. No toothpaste, though. I did buy a banana, bottled water, and Pocky.

Pocky... the king daddy of Japanese candy! They had a KING-SIZE box at the store, but that would have been too awkward to carry. I opted instead for the "mousse" Pocky, lovingly coated in green chocolate. I also got a plastic dispenser of grape e-Ma. I had no idea what e-Ma were, but they looked grapeylicious, so I bought them.

The shopping in Narita was pretty much what you see in the picture here. No CDs, no luggage, not even a lot of suit places... they're not reaching their fullest potential as a commercial Mecca with only stores pushing Pocky and manga. The ambient music and sound effects, though, are desperately needed in America. The whole place sounded like the inside of a video game. The occasional spikey hairdo only added to the gaming flavor of the place.

As I sat and waited, I decided to "lighten up my day with Pocky's super-smooth aero-chocolate." Gad, but that aero-chocolate is jawsome. I loved it. It both pleased my palate and gave me cause to reflect upon my place in the great wide world. Here's a picture of me bowled over with my Pocky-instigated philosophical moment. Best 150 yen I ever spent.

I then had an e-Ma. They're hard to get out of the contraption, but they're darn good. Kinda like Skittles, but not as overpoweringly sweet.

JAL helped me onto the flight - they were very helpful in wheeling me through Narita Airport, and I can't thank them enough for their courtesy - and I settled into my bulkhead seat. We got ready to take off and that's when I saw the bestest flight information presentation, ever. The Japanese used manga and anime techniques to show how to be safe and well-behaved in the flight. I loved it and laughed quietly at some of the panels. They were classics of the genre.

Dinner was sukiyaki beef. I'd never had it before, but when in Asia... I'm glad I did, too. While I wasn't crazy about finding out the hard way which topping for my noodles was wasabi, I really enjoyed the sukiyaki and the JAL "Yuzu" fruit drink. That stuff is clever and tasty. There were a few other yummy things and then... dessert.

I had a dream a few days back about a place that gelatinized all their food and my dessert was another gelatin. I didn't laugh out loud, but when I tasted the green ball on top of the brown cube, I was surprised to find out it was a pea. That's right, a wobbly pea jelly. That was too much fun, I tell you. I enjoyed that in a way the stewardess will never know. All around, my experience in Narita and on JAL convinced me the Japanese are the Elves of Tolkien's novels. They make amazing, magical things to eat, look a little different, and once made war on us humans, but are now our allies. At least the ones who admit World War Two was more than an "incident". At any rate, it was great to have wobble wobble wobble for dessert.

When I landed at Beijing Airport, the wheelchair guy was there and I'm glad for it. He knew a lot of Chinese and English and helped wisk me through customs and immigration. He also let me stop and take a picture of the bells of the Marquis of Yi, which we studied this year in Academic Decathlon:


Those bells are thousands of years old and can each make two different tones. These Chinese know their bells. There were also soldiers from Qin Shi Huang's terracotta army on display there and the porcelain vases for show were of the highest quality - no runs or mistakes, like are common on ones sold to Westerners before 1900. Those were the only kind the Westerners could afford...

My wheelchair man also helped with getting a taxi. Unlike the yellow-and-green cabs everywhere, he flagged a black sedan. It was nice and roomy, which a tall guy like me can really appreciate. Unfortunately, he didn't quite know where my hotel was.

He knew where Dongcheng was, and found Donghuamen Daije, but had a tough time getting the exact address of the hotel. He asked one bellhop for directions, but that guy didn't offer any help at all. So we cruised a little more and found the Beijing Tang Yue about half a block down from Mr. Bad Attitude Bellhop. I paid the cabbie, got into the hotel, and paid for the room. Nobody on the night shift spoke any English, and I didn't speak any Chinese, so we were even. I had my phrasebook and credit card, so all went well.

The room was already hot when I got in and the bellhop cranked up the heat even more to 24 Celsius, too hot for my tastes. When he left, I switched off the heater and the room settled to a nice, comfy 21.

Got on the Internet, told everyone back home I'd landed OK, and finally went to bed around midnight. I took the melatonin and since that yahoo from the other end of my row wasn't my roommate, I slept just fine.

In the morning, around 7:45 AM, I decided to have a look outside my window. I saw what I though HAD to have been the Great Wall of China:

As it turns out, that's only the Great-ish Wall of Hotel which makes for a view like none other I've ever had. I'm not complaining. I think it's great. Not Great, but great.

As I blogged in the morning, I noticed a brochure for the hotel on the table. I read it and at the end it read, "You travel is the preferred living. Let you feel like blossoming brilliant and Calgary."

Say what? I pondered the Calgary bit as I chowed down on the rest of the Pocky, to see if the aero-chocoloate would boost my capacity to understand the imagery. Nothing.

Then I took my first shower in China.

There was NO WARM WATER.



Now, I take cold showers at home normally, so I was ready for this one. I laughed and plunged my head into the icy streams and pitied anyone not inured to this sort of hardship. For me, it wasn't a hardship or even something complaint-worthy. All I have to do is to simply not desire to be warm, and the pain of the disappointment departs. Maybe if I hadn't desired to be asleep on the plane to Japan, I wouldn't be so ticked-off by the yahoo at the other end of my row.

But I now get the Calgary part. I felt VERY Calgary after the shower. Once I got dry, I felt blossoming brilliant and Calgary. Money can't buy the joy I felt at being blossoming brilliant and Calgary.

And then I was ready for my first day in China...
by Dean Webb

16 Nov 2006
T-Mobile Can Kiss... (A rambling stream of consciousness in DFW airport)

While the scatological side of me wants to include a Wesley Willis reference in the title, the sensible side of me controls a voting bloc made up of the rational side, the decent side, and the survival instinct, so I won't. I go only so far and the fans of Mr. Willis can connect the the dots, as it were.

SIX BUCKS FOR THE FIRST HOUR? I may love going online, but I'm not a crack whore. I can do without Internet for the time I'm in DFW waiting to board... in an hour and a half... It's not like I need the access for business RIGHT NOW. I can type and save and post later. If I did go online, I'd just be posting silly things on message boards and reading weird news of the day. Not really worth six bucks to me, when I could be spending that six bucks somewhere in China.

At least I know my wireless card works. I tried it out once wardriving in a neighborhood, but my wife never slowed down long enough for me to get a good IP address. Here, I managed to download the T-Mobile home page from which I could check a link on rates and find out how much I'd have to sell out for to get that dotcom fix.

I'll survive. I don't need the Internet, not right now. What I need is power.

I do have an outlet now. That's much more important. Until we humans figure out how to create resonant rechargers just right, we're all bound by the umbilicals of our laptops. This laptop's a beast, too. I love that. I may refuse to drive an SUV or a Hummer, but I'll be damned if I'm gonna do without a massive graphics card and a 17" screen. Sure, it's a hog as far as computers go, but compared to an Escalade? Please. I'm fuel-efficient.

Agh. CNN on autopilot. See? I'd never get all of my 60 minutes with that blasted CNN running and me looking up at it every now and then and getting sucked into a story or an unmuted commercial and AGGGH! all going on. The sound's irritating, too. OK, so not everyone came as well-equipped as I did, but too bad for them. I'm breaking free. I'm playing music as I type this. Joke's on you, CNN!

And what am I playing? Just finished listening to Natacha Atlas. That's right. Arabic music. I GOT ARABIC MUSIC THROUGH SECURITY! BWAHAHAHAHA!!! Speaking of security, it wasn't that bad at all. Maybe I fell off that list I thought I was on. Or maybe there's something else awaiting me? Maybe my dad using his platinum miles with AA to move my seat around turned off the red flag by my name.

Or maybe those random searches I got really were random. That's terrible news to a paranoid like me, to discover I'm not really that important to warrant constant surveillance. I'll go with my dad's influence as a mitigating factor if I don't get a strip-search before I board. If I get strip-searched, I'll feel a lot better about myself. Paranoia really is a disease of narcissism, isn't it?

I think I'll crank up the Arabic stuff. It'll kill two birds with one stone. One, it'll drown out the CNN. Two, it might just get me searched.

If I am to be searched, I'd much rather it be here than in China. I know what happens in Chinese prisons. Not that US ones are a picnic, but Chinese ones? Yikes. AND HERE I AM LOOKING AT A COMMERCIAL WHILE I TYPE AND I DO NOT CARE ABOUT ANDERSON PHILLIPS ONE BIT.

Oooh, an ad about the terror level. It's orange. I need to report suspicious stuff, says the ad. I don't think the TSA would have a sense of humor about me reporting how Halliburton got no-bid contracts for Iraqi reconstruction and how suspicious I think that is. They're looking for something a little less... global. I don't really want to nark on the people around me, but I know Air Marshalls flying in and out of Las Vegas have a quota of reporting suspicious-looking characters every month. Even if they don't see anyone who's crossed over into the threshold of suspiciousnessity, they have to single people out as being more suspicious than those around them. Those folks wind up on lists for special security all over the place. If I had to pick someone here to be suspicious, it'd be a tough choice. And the lady next to me just asked me to keep watch on her laptop while she changes.

No checking out suspicious people for now. I AM ON THE JOB. Switch the music to Gary Numan's "Cars". That's American, right? Hmmm. It's pre-1980 techno. Never mind. It's space alien music. I can't get pulled over now while I'm doing a good deed. I'm a former BOY SCOUT, for goodness' sake! I must watch this laptop.

She got stuck here last night because of storms elsewhere leading to a cancellation of her flight. She got a hotel room, but didn't really have the clothing packed for the stay. That's gotta be rough. Imagine going home and then finding out NO. YOU'RE NOT. Punch to the gut, an experience like that. I'm here to help.

Next song in the shuffle: "Grooving to the Moscow Beat" by The Red Elvises. That's really helping *me* to become the guy everyone else reports as a hairy terrorist. Except the lady getting changed. She's my character witness. See, everyone? I'm a good bearded eccentric! I watch laptops in airports for free!

Hmmm... she's still gone. Taking a while to get dressed... if that's really what's going on. Well, if I post this, the laptop wasn't a bomb.

Can I do that? Type "bomb" in an airport?

I'll just scroll past that part...

OK, here's some good American music! "Everybody Eats When They Come to My House" by Cab Calloway. Love that swing. And, yes, this is on a playlist I built. I told you I was a bearded eccentric.

Ouch. Hot laptop. Hot hot hot hot hot hot... get that fan, yeah... I love the laptop cooler... very low noise, almost inaudible, and keeps the power hog from cooking my thigh. People actually get burns from laptops.

Back again.

I just realized Cab Calloway's black. That might not earn me any points with a racist security guy. But the next song is ZZ Top's "Have Mercy/Jesus Just Left Chicago". If I play ZZ Top, that is totally redeeming. No way can they pinch me for several hours of questioning with that playing.

She's back, gets her laptop and thanks me. You're welcome and I hope you get home OK.

A Chinese man now walks up and asks me to help with his network. He found a "free wireless" network, but it has no DNS server. He knows what a DNS server is, so it's easy to explain how he's not getting to on that network. I try a little Chinese and he says my accent is good. For that, I thank the Chinese students in my third and seventh periods. Xiexie.

My rant's gone on for forty minutes and the Chinese fellow decided not to go with T-Mobile. I don't think they have Wesley Willis in China, but I'm sure they have sentiments like the one I felt. As the Urdu lyrics of Midival Punditz' "Kesariya" begin to play, I realize I've come full circle just sitting in one place.

I hope nobody jacked with my luggage while I helped the Chinese guy, or I'm in deep trouble when that "random" search hits me.

Whoops. A random trash cart almost hit me. I gotta move. I think I'll finish typing before another janitor shows up.

by Dean Webb

By the Time I Get to Phoenix...

There's a great old Isaac Hayes tune by that name, where the protagonist is leaving his woman in LA and heads back home to Tennessee and along the way, he realizes that by the time he gets to point (x) along his route, his former love will be doing certain things. It's a sad song, made even sadder by the way Hayes sets up the story with an 11-minute monologue about the power of love and what it can do.

I won't get to do that. There aren't a lot of landmarks in the Pacific, let alone stops for gas. I'd like to have some sort of romantic motif like that for my trip, but, well... how can I be romantic with, "By the time I get to the 84 W Meridian... she'll be stuck in traffic on the way ho-o-o-ome..." And I'm also not really leaving her, anyway. I mean, yeah, I'm going to China, but I'm not leaving leaving for China. I plan to come back.

I'd like there to be some sort of romantic, emotional angle to this journey, but having been married almost 19 years gives a person a certain sort of peace and confidence that's better than romance.

But there is the romance of place and time.

I'm here in Texas, Central Standard Time, GMT -6 hours. Beijing is in China, Beijing Time, GMT +8. That's a 14-hour difference I gotta deal with. So, by the time I post again, if I post when I get to my hotel room, it'll be night over there and morning over here and if my nap on the plane was effective, I won't really be feeling the jet-lag too bad... and by the time I post again, I might have gone to the Night Market in Dongcheng, near the hotel, and have dined on grasshoppers and maybe even a scorpion or two. That's the romance of food... I'll have an affair with another cuisine. Will Tex-Mex still take me back? And will Texas hold the same place in my heart after I've seen the beauties of China? I don't know... travel could infect me with a lust for new things or Texas could be a home I'll never want to leave again... or maybe I can work out an open relationship with my home?

And, actually, I can get to landmarks in the air. I just realized I planned to read a novel my mom wrote about growing up in, of all places, Phoenix.

So, by the time I get to Phoenix, it'll be about 11 AM Central Standard Time. What will you be doing then?

See you on the flip side!

by Dean Webb

15 Nov 2006
The Glory of Carry-on Luggage


I got all my clothes for the trip into one carry-on! This means I won't have to check any bags on the way over. That is going to be a lot of peace of mind for me, not worrying about my luggage flying the wrong way around the world. I just have to worry about getting through security and customs, now.

Security's not a worry. More of a hassle. I always seem to get bonus searches here in the states. I'm sure trying to start an Arabic Language Study Group at my school isn't going to help me on that count. I just want to say right now that the ziplock baggie of white powder in my suitcase has Arm and Hammer Baking Soda Detergent in it. I plan to wash some clothes in China, probably in Nanjing or Shanghai. That's how I managed to fit everything into one carry-on: the promise of a laundry day somewhere in the future.

Should I try for extreme ironing while I'm over there? Maybe I will. Yeah, that'll be cool, to be halfway around the world and enjoy the crispness of a freshly-ironed shirt I pressed out myself. Not that I do any ironing at home. My appearance here usually is best described as "wrinkled".

Customs... Well, I don't have anything the Chinese ought to be upset with... and I don't plan to have anything the Americans should be upset with on the way back, but it's still a hassle having to go through all that. If I were a character in a Monty Python picture, I'd be questioning the authority of the state to govern me based on its ability to engage in organized, sanctioned violence. Then I'd have to dress up in armor for my scene just outside the French castle.

By this time tomorrow, I'll be sitting in traffic on the way to the airport. Wish me luck!

by Dean Webb

13 Nov 2006
72 Hours Until the Trip Starts

That's right, Chinafans! in 72 hours, I'm on my way to the DFW airport and from there to China. China's 14 hours ahead of Dallas time, so please forgive me if I have a lag in responding to emails and what-not. Chances are, you'll be asleep while I'm awake. Unless you're in Asia at the same time. Then, not so much of a difference.

The first leg of the trip across the Pacific looks like it'll take about 14 hours, as the crow flies in a great circle. Actually, I don't see it possible that crows have migratory patterns of that magnitude. I figured this out by noticing how my flight back leaves China at 5:45 PM and hits Chicago at 5:10 PM, earlier that same day. Recalling the time difference, that put the flight at 13 and a half hours, give or take a few minutes. That's a lot of time to be flying around, and I plan to sleep while we're over the water. Got my horseshoe-shaped travel pillow and melatonin supplements right here with me to make that snoozefest happen.

Am I totally ready to go? No. I am not yet packed. Also, I'm still figuring out the money thing. I know I'll take some, but getting the precise denominations and configurations has yet to be hashed out. For security reasons, I'll keep my plans a secret. Actually, I don't have them yet, but saying "for security reasons" allows me to cloak my indecision behind a veneer of respectable prudence.

by Dean Webb

12 Nov 2006
Don't You Try This At Home!

Yeah, right... that's just a disclaimer. For legal purposes, I just told you not to do this, got it? If anything goes down and you wind up getting hurt as a result of attempting to repeat this experiment, legally, you can't blame me.

With that in mind, here's how to have some fun testing your own threshold of pain.

My wife Yvette and I were watching a show about differences between men and women yesterday and one question they had dealt with the ability to withstand pain. Now, I'm already aware of a study in which it was found that men did have a higher threshold of pain and would report instances of pain later than women would. But this teevee show decided to proceed about the problem in a most unscientific manner.

They tested pain by waxing hair off the forearm.

The first guy was really really hairy. Almost like a gorilla. On a scale of 1-10, he reported losing all that arm hair to be about a 5. Yee-owch.

The first woman was only sorta hairy. RRRRRRRRRRRIP! Her reaction? A 3. Ho-hum.

Next guy was pretty bare. One hot wax treatment later, and he was telling everyone it was a 3 for him.

The next woman had almost no hair on her arm. She also didn't even notice the wax coming off. She scored a 0 on the 1-10 pain scale.

Well, no duh. The more hair, the more pain. All the show proved was how hairless people suffer less in a hot wax treatment.

So Yvette and I decided to do a little science of our own. We got some hair removal stuff called Nads (strawberry scented! too cool!) and set about testing my threshold of pain.

Now, I've had pain so bad, it made me shut my eyes and not open them as I suppressed the urge to scream my lungs out of my body. I'd rate that a good, solid, 10 on my 1-10 scale. I can't imagine anything worse than that.

First target was to rip hair off a part of my calf with hardly any hair. My wife says it's bald there due to poor circulation. Whatever the reason, one rip later and I had a minor annoyance. A 1.

Next was the other side of the leg, with more hair. Yowch. I rated that experience a 3. Some pain, but it didn't really bug me all that much.

I wondered about other parts of my body being more sensitive. I tried another spot as hairy as my leg: my stomach. RRRRIP! OWWWW! That was a five. The sensitivity of the skin is a factor in the experience of the pain. Definitely.

Then I tried the back of my neck. I'm very sensitive there. Turns out, I also have a lot of hair there. That experience left me with closed eyes and serious doubts about the benefits of scientific research. Yvette just laughed at how much hair came off, insisting the benefits outweighed the costs. That really hurt bad. Not a 10, but I'd call it at an 8. I mean, I could still think a half-coherent thought as I experienced that pain.

The back is some of the body's least-sensitive skin. I have a rather hairy back. I know, too much information, but this is for science, dagnabbit. I thought it would be just fine there, but as Yvette applied the Nads, I felt the painful tugs and realized this would not be a case of senseless violence. I was going to feel this...

Now, before each rip, I would try and relax so I wouldn't anticipate the pain. That would possibly reduce my total experience and I felt that would be dishonest. This attempt was no exception. I found my calm blue ocean, made peace with my soul and-

YEEEEEEEOOOOOOOOOWWWWWWWWWWWWW!!!!!!!! As I feared, ripping hair off my back really did hurt. Not as bad as the neck, but up there. Call it a 7.

I think density of hair is a stronger factor than skin sensitivity in the experiencing of pain. Be that as it may, both play a role in this. I plan to never wax my skin again.

by Dean Webb

06 Nov 2006
My Letter to CBS

CBS has a show on its website called "The Papdits". I watched the first part of the trailer and can say it is thoroughly unfunny. Worse, it uses racist and xenophobic techniques to elicit its brand of shocking schlock. Here's my letter to CBS. Please feel free to quote, copy, and pass it along... ESPECIALLY if you know someone big at CBS, who needs to pull the plug on this project ASAP. It is an embarrassment, not a comedy.

I am very disappointed anyone in your organization would give approval to a show like "The Papdits". You obviously wanted to shock audiences, and you succeeded in doing that with me. But shock is not comedy.

I have many friends from South Asia, and this show is terribly insulting and insensitive. Yes, there are problems with female infanticide and sati (killing of a widow upon the death of her husband), but they should not be trivialized in the manner you have done so on this trailer. What's next? A rollicking comedy about the ups and downs of child prostitution on the streets of Mumbai? A family-friendly show about fake drug manufacturers and their homespun wisdom?

I know many recent immigrants from India, Pakistan, Kashmir, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. They do not deserve the mockery this show heaps upon them.

There is plenty of talent in Bollywood - why didn't you approach someone there about a crossover show for US audiences?

This show is as unfunny as it is insulting. If your network is that desperate for a good show, hire me to write one. I won't write crap. But if you want crap, well, this is the way to go.

by Dean Webb

03 Nov 2006
It's Really Starting to Sink in...

I leave for China in less than 2 weeks and I just got my passport back with my visa in it. (I used, by the way... great service!) I'm really gonna go to China... wow.

Of course, I have to get my stuff at school ready for the substitute and be sure to go over speech and interview as much as I can with my AcDec team because I won't see them until the 29th, when I get back from getting back.

I still need to get a few things... anti-diarrhea medicine is one of the things most highly recommended to acquire. I've got my horseshoe-shaped travel pillow and anti-malarial medication, so I should be OK with only a few more purchases. Packing clothes for 10 days is going to be interesting... or do I buy some over there, like a Mao Zedong suit? And do they make Mao Zedong suits in my size?

But, yeah... going to China... dude...

by Dean Webb

01 Nov 2006
Strange Chinese Dream

The other night, I had this dream, see...

First, though, I need to explain something. A while back, one of my students brought me a Chinese dessert. It was tasty, but totally alien to a Westernized palate. Even Arabic and Indian cuisine can't prepare one for the unusual textures of this dessert, which involves a rather thick gelatin and different flavors. I got chocolate and vanilla flavored gelatins. The flavors were there, but not with the heavy sweetening we get in America, which I found refreshing. I always find foreign sweets refreshing, except when they have more sugar in them than American ones. (Remind me to tell you about my experience with a Mango Squash later...) The big difference in these is the texture. The gelatin is quite thick and there isn't really anything to prepare the palate to get ready for it.

OK, back to the dream...

In the dream, I'm about to get on this tour bus and I'm waiting for Calvin to get over to the bus. How he got to China, I don't know, but I'm kinda mad at him for sneaking along. He shows up at the bus without any shoes on. I ask him where they are and he shrugs his shoulders.

Great. He's lost his shoes in the middle of China. We're in this village, and the bus is going to the only place nearby that justifies the village as a tourist stop. We need shoes for the destination, so we can't get on the bus if he's gonna be Shoeless Joe for the day.

We go back into the village and talk with the locals, who are keen for a chance to improve their English.

Then it's lunch time.

Our hosts whip out gelatinized carrots, gelatinized cucumbers, gelatinized beets, gelatinized everything. All the food to eat is wobbly. Calvin won't eat that, I'm thinking, so I ask, "Do you have something else to eat? Like rice?"

"Sure!" My hosts happily whip out the rice...

... gelatinized...


My dream ends with me and Calvin staring at the wobbling gelatinized rice...

by Dean Webb

Posted at:10 Jan 2009 06:21:53 PM

No Words portraits and romantic illustrations.

What's there to say?

I got words and pictures.

I got a message board.

Like I said, what's there to say?