Too-Hot in Turpan

I will never take a sleeper bus again unless absolutely necessary – words I later ate in a double-size meal.  I spent the twelve-hour ride to Turpan either getting tossed by the bus bumping along unfinished roads, or fitfully turning and trying strange positions for my legs, which were at least a foot too long for the small space you are allowed below the next person’s seat-bed.  As this bus ride was the passage from Gansu Province into the considerably more restive Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, we were boarded twice by police who checked our IDs; they had a scanner for the Chinese IDs but they just glanced at my passport and continued on.

I arrived at the Tulufan Bingguan as recommended in Lonely Planet at 8 in the morning, where Arnab had arrived the night before.  I took a freezing cold shower and we met a guide he spent time with the night before. We agreed to a slightly inflated price (I think) of 100 kuai per person for just us touring because we were too late to catch the minibus tour.  However this turned out well because even though we went to the traditional karez irrigation works and the Buddha Caves, these were things we didn’t want to pay to see.

We wanted to eat a tasty Uighur breakfast, but we had the not-so-good fortune of landing in Xinjiang during Ramadan so proper Uighur places were closed until Eid on September 10th, nine days later.  Our driver took us to a pretty crappy Chinese breakfast, including salty milk tea, at the jiaotong bingguan (bus station motel) for 10 kuai.  He then took us to the Buddha caves and past the “Flaming Mountains” where we did not pay to enter the “official viewing area” to see.  The Flaming Mountains are a bit over-hyped although they look cool, like Mars; but we saw them in the morning and I’ll bet they look best as the Sun sets.

The Flaming Mountains
The Flaming Mountains

Next we went to the Grape Valley, which was my favorite part of the day.  Our driver took us in the back way, so we drove through the whole grape-growing neighborhood, which was devoid of tourists because they all enter through the pay-60-kuai entrance. (Our driver wound up extracting 30 kuai each from us for the benefit of taking this better tour).  We drove right to his friend’s small grove/restaurant.  I wish we had gotten out and walked a bit, but it was still beautiful to sit in the shade of the grapevines.  At the restaurant we were invited to cut our own grapes from the ceiling vines (for free!) and we sat down to those and some fresh watermelon, rounding it out with a massive pot of Central Asian chai tea and a tasty mutton dish with peppers and home-made noodles.

Turpan Grape Woman
Turpan Grape Woman
I Cut the Grapes in Turpan
I Cut the Grapes in Turpan
Arnab Enjoys the Fruits of Turpan
Arnab Enjoys the Fruits of Turpan

We relaxed with the powerful copper-colored chai and the numerous grapes in the comfort of the vine shade until we were ready to visit Jiaohe Ancient City.  It cost 40 kuai to get in but it’s a pretty well-preserved ( in ruinous terms ) ancient Silk Road desert city dating from the Han period.  The Chinese predictably congregated only 1/3 of the way up the 1.5 km path through numerous ruins to take pictures at the touristy “scenic spot” with fake costumed Han desert women.  Arnab and I continued on up to the end of the path, even though the Sun was awfully punishing and there was almost no shade.  Our reward was a most interesting and totally tourist-free (save us) stay in the ruined Great Buddhist Temple, which still had some weathered Buddha statues in its prayer place.

The Great Buddhist Temple at Jiaohe Ruins
The Great Buddhist Temple at Jiaohe Ruins
Faded Buddhas at Jiaohe Ruins
Faded Buddhas at Jiaohe Ruins
Stupa Graveyard at Jiaohe Ruins
Stupa Graveyard at Jiaohe Ruins

Then we went by the karez irrigation works but decided we didn’t want to pay 40 kuai to see it.  Subsequently we went to photograph the Emin Minaret from the outside since entry costs 50 kuai.  That evening at our hotel I encountered a loud group of American exchange students and talked with a girl studying at UIBE who did not know that foreigners could join groups, whether at the University or in the city.

We wanted to leave Turpan by train, but we were forced settle for a sleeper bus since no train tickets were available for days.  Twenty-four hours across the Taklamakan Desert to Hotan was to begin at 13:00 the following afternoon  That night we went to a waterfront restaurant whith great food and good tea.  We enjoyed huge kebab and da pan ji.  We sat for a while and listened to the music the Chinese danced to, then we went to bed. The next morning we ate some beef noodles and got on the bus to Hotan.

A lot of Uighurs were conscious of the Iraq “war mission” ending right at that time.  Our Turpan taxi driver, the guy who sold coffee at the hotel, and a man on the bus to Hotan all mentioned the Iraq pullout and asked if I liked Obama.  I think the Uighurs on the bus to Hotan spoke in their language about how some people in the US think Obama is a Muslim.

All of my photos from Turpan can be found here.

Dunhuang: Desert Travelers at the End of China

Saturday the 28th was a largely wasted day spent on the train from Xi’an to Dunhuang, where I arrived at about 09:30 on Sunday morning.   I immediately went to query the ticket office for trains from Dunhuang to Turpan, but their mei you said it all: there are no trains to Xinjiang from Dunhuang.  As a foreigner, they could have been lying to me, but they said the same thing to a nice group of independent Heliongjiang travelers.  They asked if I wanted to join them in hiring a car the next day bound for Urumqi.  I politely declined, explaining that I wanted to stay in Dunhuang longer than one day.  This disappointed me a bit, since independent traveling Chinese would be much more interesting than those traveling in tour groups which seem to make up the vast majority of tourist traffic.  They even looked more interesting than tour groupies; the woman had long dyed-red hair and the man was decked out in desert gear.

I caught a cab to the famous Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse, and I stepped into the cozy courtyard just in time to meet two French folks, Murielle and Mattieu, who have been cycling the Silk Road from France since April and will continue to points beyond through April 2011.  We caught a bus to the Mogao Caves for 9 kuai in front of Charlie Johng’s Cafe, which is in town unlike the duneside guesthouse.  The caves are interesting but very expensive: 180 kuai with an English guide, which is practically necessary since they can get you into some caves you would not see otherwise.

At the caves I saw the first real Tang Dynasty art I had ever seen with my own eyes.  It was brilliant and superbly detailed, an evident example of why the Tang Dynasty is so revered in Chinese culture.  That painting covered the walls and roof of the cave with a reclining Buddha shaped like a coffin.  My favorite cave, though, was Cave 237, which had a super-psychedelic Song Dynasty mural which centered around a guy (a Buddha?) playing a guitar behind his head like Jimi Hendrix, while other Buddhas played in a concert surrounding him, and a supreme Buddha glowing with cool colors pontificated over the scene.  I want that as a poster.  This cave was partially ruined by White Russian refugees who were locked in the caves by the locals after the Russian civil war.  The museum at the Mogao Caves is sharp, but not nearly as interesting as the actual caves.

Mogao Caves Main Hall
Mogao Caves Main Hall
The Dunhuang / Mogao Caves Bus
The Dunhuang / Mogao Caves Bus

We took the bus back to town and ate some food near the market, which is at once interesting and orderly.  I was pleased by the Dunhuang market for simply being the best of both clean / modern and ethnic / interesting; usually in China it’s all blown out to one end or the other, and even the ethnic part is rarely that authentic (except in Hotan). I also began to work out bus transportation to Turpan when I discovered that I would have to go to the other bus station.  I planned to leave the 31st, two days later, to meet Arnab in Turpan.

I tried to walk with a few hostel-mates into the desert behind the guesthouse, but there is heavy risk of a high fine so we didn’t cross the fence.  After all, it’s not possible to hide from the authorities in the desert like it is in the forest.  I wrote some emails that afternoon, and while at the computer I met a fellow traveler named Nathan from Geneva.  He was at the caves with us, and we discussed the possibility of going to the Jade Gate the next day.  Unfortunately, I never got to do that due to time and money constraints.  Two South African fellows, Rudi and Adriaan, became pals of mine for the duration in Dunhuang.  They met a girl at the next hostel named Eva from El Paso, and we all went to town to eat in the market.  The open-air atmosphere made up for the lackluster food.  Rudi wants to get involved in politics in South Africa, which provided plenty of good conversation.  Upon returning to the hostel we enjoyed some peanut cakes, had a couple more beers and retired just before midnight.

Desert Fence
Desert Fence
The Sizzling Dunhuang Night market
The Sizzling Dunhuang Night market
Rudi Can't Fail
Rudi Can't Fail
Eva and the Local Goods
Eva and the Local Goods

The next day I went into town to buy a bus ticket to Turpan, set to leave at 18:00 on Tuesday the 31st to arrive at 05:00 the next day.  Nathan and I ate lunch at a tasty Sichuan place; he mentioned that he will study for a year in Osaka. I informed him of my favorite restaurant to have a nice kao ya sendoff in Beijing the next day before he went back to Geneva.

That evening Rudi, Adriaan, Eva and I made reservations to ride camels and camp in the desert dunes.  It cost 300 RMB total, with 100 RMB up front at the Dune Guesthouse.  A van took us away at five in the evening to the house of Li, the handler.  I downed four bottles of water before mounting the camel, which made me stop twice to micturate before we got to the campsite.  Li had a good sense of humor and sang a lot, even giving instructions in a sing-song voice.  The camels did not run, only walked, and were much more enjoyable than the horses in Inner Mongolia.  The desert sunset fantastically exploded in the sky like an engine of creation and widsom.  We scrambled up the top of an exquisitely seductively curved dune ridge to watch the Sun dip down farther along the Silk Road.  It is a highlight of my trip, although the wind blew and sand got everywhere.  From the top of the ridge, we descended into the dune valley where Li had set up the tents and was cooking our basic dinner of noodles and hard bread.  This valley’s vibe made us feel we could have been anywhere on Earth, even off Earth.  There were no sounds, not even the wind, and we laid back for a few hours to stare at the stars.  I saw a few meteors and several satellites.  Li sang songs and Eva played her guitar a bit; though she did not know that many songs, I was able to teach her “California Stars” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”  We hit the sack around 11:30. I used my camera bag as a pillow.

Desert Shack
Desert Shack
Desert Graveyard
Desert Graveyard
Adriaan's Third Eye
Adriaan's Third Eye
Desert of Legend
Desert of Legend
God's Rays over Dunhuang
God's Rays over Dunhuang

Li woke us just in time for the sunrise, then we rode our camels back to his place.  We payed Li the remaining 200 RMB directly, so it’s clear that he gets his fair cut.  That day I chilled out and read some in Catch-22 before going into town for a quick dinner with Rudi and Adriaan to prepare for the bus ride. Thirty minutes before bus left, I decided to stay one more day in Dunhuang to relax rather than be stuck waiting for Arnab in super-hot Turpan.  I easily transferred the bus tickets to next evening, the First of September.  We walked along the market area while eating an ice cream and caught the bus back to the guesthouse, where we reviewed Adriaan’s pictures form the desert on his iPad.  As the day grew long, we returned to town to eat an extremely delicious rou jia mo.  A few Portuguese travelers invited us to drink some beers with them in the open air market, after which I made the stupid suggestion to go to KTV at Babyface.  It was the worst KTV I have ever experienced: bad song selection, the sound was too quiet, the beers were expensive and worst of all the experience forever tainted the image of KTV to the Portuguese first-timers.  When we left the KTV part of Babyface, we spent two minutes in the pitiful dance club downstairs which had twelve people in it besides we laowai.  As we left, a young shirtless Chinese guy ran after us desparately yelling “Wait! Wait!”  I guess we were the most interesting thing to happen there in a long time.

Li the Camel-Man
Li the Camel-Man
Dunhuang Crew
Dunhuang Crew

I relaxed and read some Catch-22 the next day, then hopped on the sleeper bus to Turpan after eating more delicious chao mian.

All of my photos from Dunhuang can be found here.

Xi’an: Old City Walls Just Don’t Feel the Same

This is the Great Silk Road Trip, so it had to actually start on the Silk Road.  Xi’an, formerly Chang’an in its days of glory, was the capital of Tang China and is the eastern terminus / beginning of the Silk Road.  Its history and location in the center of China’s interior make Xi’an the ideal beginning to a Silk Road excursion – once your visa is secured.

I left Warren’s apartment in Hong Kong at 06:00 to catch the Shenzhen airport bus at 06:50.  The bus was only half full, rendering unneeded my pains to get a ticket the previous night.  The border police detained me briefly when entering China, which marked my fourth straight frisking by the authorities and gives me a 1.000 average for staying flagged in the Chinese immigration system.  I broke my six-month no-McDonald’s streak when I ate an egg McMuffin for breakfast at the airport.  I slept on the plane and during the hour-long bus ride from the airport into Xi’an.  Ten hours of transit ended when I finally set my bag down at the Seven Sages Hostel at about 16:00.

A walk around the Muslim Quarter was first on my agenda.  It is my favorite memory from Xi’an; the neighborhood itself is interesting and there are plenty of tasty snacks to sample.  It is the center of the Hui Muslim ethnic community in Xi’an.  These are Han Chinese people who are traditionally Islamic, so many of their cultural practices are more typically Chinese than their other Muslim minority brethren in China. In the Quarter I entered the serene courtyard of a neat Chinese-style mosque, which was not the famous Great Mosque that requires visitors to pay an entry fee.  A few men read their Qurans and chatted quietly while I photographed the architecture.  The call to prayer squawked from a loudspeaker as I returned to the busy streets.  I dined on savory yang rou pao mo (crumbled bread in lamb stew) and I sampled giant versions of “Chinese chips,” which I believe are called humabing.  The most memorable Xi’an snack was the huashenggao or peanut cakes.  Huashenggao reminded me of peanut butter bars from back home, except much larger and cheaper.  I smashed two kilos of the stuff between my teeth in less than five days, which cost only about 30 kuai.

Mosque Leaf Ladder
Mosque Leaf Ladder
Humabing, or "Chinese chips"
Humabing, or "Chinese chips"
Huashenggao, or peanut cakes
Huashenggao, or peanut cakes

That evening I relaxed at the Seven Sages Hostel and drank tea with two girls from Northern Ireland and Nora from Austria as they watched Juno.

I woke up late the next morning.  For nearly two hours I cycled around the old city wall, a less interesting experience than I had expected.  The Western gate hosted the end of a “Willpower Walker” race involving a bunch of men in pink shirts.  Fifteen hundred years earlier, the same spot was the beginning or end of the merchant journeys connecting the material and economic prosperity of Europe, China and all the lands between.  The bike chain broke and took ten minutes off my journey, and I was 20 minutes late returning the bike which everyone rents for 100 minutes.  I explained my story to the attendants, who downgraded my time such that I was not fined.  So, travelers beware: when renting bicycles to ride on the walls of Xi’an, 100 minutes is not enough time unless you ride at breakneck speed!

Modern Old City Wall
Modern Old City Wall
Western Gate with Willpower Walkers
Western Gate with Willpower Walkers

It was 13:30 when I finished cycling.  I snacked near the wall, then retreated to the hostel to launder clothes and shower.  I met Nora and we set out to see the Little Goose Pagoda.  Unfortunately, transport is not abundant in Xi’an; we arrived at the pagoda too late to enter.  As a consolation we walked to the Muslim Quarter and ate too much.  Finding nothing left to do in Xi’an (I had already seen the Terracotta Warriors in Atlanta), I watched Inglourious Basterds and drank more tea before I retired at 1.  I left on the K591 to Dunhuang at 10:56 the next morning.

All the photos from Xi’an are here.

Hong Kong

The Great Silk Road Trip began when my time as a Beijinger ended:  at 20:00 on Sunday, August 22, 2010 when I boarded the T107 train at Beijing West Railway Station bound for Shenzhen.  It was a hard sleeper, thankfully, so I spent a little less than half of the train’s 27-hour journey sleeping or lying on my top-level bed.  On Monday, while the train chugged through Jiangxi Province, I chatted for an hour with a Hong Kong Cantonese who set up the Hong Kong Delivery Company two decades ago, and is now a successful businessman.  He encouraged me to sign up for courier work to enjoy free flights.  Too bad I no longer have a valid Chinese visa!  I also spoke with a guy from Los Angeles who is developing flight routes to a new airport in the Bay Area, and an older guy from Hong Kong near my seat who told me about how to cross the border from Shenzhen to Hong Kong.

Snow warned me that this train was frequently a couple hours late, and this was true tonight; the train pulled in at 21:00 to a lightly raining Shenzhen.  I walked across the border; it was a bit hard to understand the process due to bad signage.  I changed money on the Hong Kong side – a mistake, as the rate on the China side was HK$ 112 to RMB 100, but in it was HK$ 108 to RMB 100.  I took the MTR to Sai Wan Ho, which takes over an hour from the border station since Sai Wan Ho is on Hong Kong Island and requires about three transfers.  On the metro I serendipitously met Paul Wilson, an AIESEC EP from Bristol, UK who had just finished a two-month ET in Changsha. My Chinese SIM card didn’t work in Hong Kong so he texted my couchsurfing host, Warren, that I was nearing his metro station.

I met Warren and Flo, an Italian couchsurfer, in Sai Wan Ho, a cool residential area that isn’t so overwhelming as the rest of HK Island’s North side. Warren and Flo were on the hunt for dessert but I was yet un-sated with an evening meal.  Our first destination, then, was a delicious street food noodle vendor.  Fried noodles with chicken and sausage was HK$20. We then went for dessert, where I got a papaya milkshake thing with tapioca balls.

Warren is a fantastically nice human being.  he’s a New Zealander by birth, a geography teacher at an international school in Hong Kong by day, and the founder and lead operator of Hong Kong Pub Crawl, Hong Kong’s first backpacker pub crawl, by night.  We said goodbye to Flo after dessert and Warren and I went to his tiny but amply rooftop-ed flat. I slept for six hours, showered and ventured to the visa office. While waiting for my number to be called, I met a guy from Birmingham who is an architect in Shanghai at the visa office.  We chatted about mutual acquaintances.  It took 45 minutes of waiting and walking in 4 wrong doors and 2 wrong elevators to complete the visa process.

After leaving my passport with the Chinese consular services, I went to Tsim Sha Tsui to get a camera lens for Patrick and myself; I took the Star Ferry from Wan Chai pier.  The Star Ferry is the most interesting, and also cheapest, way to get around Hong Kong. After getting the lenses and a new camera bag, I ate shrimp wonton noodle soup in a small place near Nathan Rd. for HK$23, then I Star Ferry’d it back to Wan Chai. A HK$6 public light bus which took a while landed me at Warren’s and I got to see some of the city from the windows. I dropped things off and rested while it rained outside. I was off to see the city again at 3 PM.

I walked around the central escalator near Soho / Central and fell asleep sitting on a bench in a small park for half an hour.  Then I met Warren and Shaun for their rugby league, which Warren kindly invited me to join.  It was a touch game, and it being my first time to play I sucked hard; but it was fun, and the seaside at the HKU sports fields made it even better.  After two hours of vigorous rugby, I left to meet Charlie for dinner and drinks and shisha in Wan Chai.  It was great to see him for the first time in a year.  I then retired to Warren’s.

I picked up my China L, or tourist, visa the morning of the 25th.  Next, I took the tram to Victoria Peak, but regrettably I left my camera at home that day.  The view from Victoria Peak is one of the world’s great vistas, and I was lucky to be in Hong Kong on a fogless, not-too-cloudy day.  You can see many of the islands that make Hong Kong so interesting.  When I was done gazing, I walked down Old Peak Road, which is a nice, green nature preserve until you reach the lower levels.  Less than thirty meters away from the preserve’s border, within plain view of massive condominium windows, I saw a big snail with a healthy-looking shell slicking its way across a rock while a small army of strange ants paraded around it.  As I contemplated the wonder of the scene, vibrant life contrasted with the height of modern cosmopolitan living, I said aloud: “Hong Kong is very cool.”

The rest of the walk down to Admiralty was confusing and urban.  I eventually met Van next to a sports complex.  We had a tasty lunch of some spicy Hong Kong noodles, then we took a subway to the end of the line on Lantau Island; one of her coworkers had recommended a place there to rent a bike and ride a trail on the island.  We didn’t find an especially natural trail, but we did find someone’s secluded Confucian shrine at one abrupt end of the bike path against the beach, and we sought in vain to take our bikes on the sky gondolas that go past the Big Buddha.  We also had by far the most delicious Oreo milkshake ever created; it was so good that after I finished mine I said “what will life be like now after that?”

On the way back to the apartment, I bought my ticket for the 06:50 bus to Shenzhen airport.  A quick apartment stop was the prelude to meeting Warren at Temple St. on Kowloon to dine on street food.  He promoted his bar crawl heavily to the passers-by and never slowed down on the witty, intelligent banter.  I was lucky to have such good hosts, which improved my Hong Kong trip by an order of magnitude.  Van and I had a beer each at Dusk til Dawn in Wan Chai and tried to guess if people in the bar were pilots or not (they have a special for flight crew members).  Then I crashed for four hours before awakening, saying goodbye to Warren, and catching the bus.  I REALLY wish I had stayed in Hong Kong one more day, if not one more week (though that would have killed my savings).  It’s a great place with such a diversity of experiences.

All my Hong Kong photos (few though they are) can be found here.

The Grasslands of Inner Mongolia

This weekend Lukas, Jerry, David and I absconded with our bodies to enjoy a weekend Great Khan-style in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia (a province of China, not the independent country where I turned down the opportunity to help expand AIESEC).

First we took the Friday evening overnight K263 train to Hohhot, the capital of Nèi Měnggǔ province.  Though not the first “hard sleeper” train I had ever taken (that honor goes to the Qingzang Railway), The K263 was the first sleeper train I had taken which did not have compartments for the groupings of six beds, three in a stack.  There were only walls between every other stack of beds, allowing the feet of abnormally tall people like myself to obstruct the train car’s walkway.  After a few beers and a couple of swigs of the Scottish Collie whisky Lukas brought along, we climbed into bed just in time for the 22:00 lights out.  The nightcap protected my slumber from the rumblings of the K263, even when we stopped in heavily polluted Datong at the unholy hour of about 02:00.

The train pulled into Hohhot at 05:00 the next morning, and we stumbled out into the city which is the butt of many jokes by both laowai and Chinese for its conjured image as a rough industrial splotch on the remote Mongolian frontier.  In the dark of the morning, it seemed to be mostly correct.  Hohhot was not our final destination; we were headed to the grasslands tourism hub of Xilamuren, but the first bus did not leave until 07:00.  Dico’s, the Chinese fast-food chicken chain, was the only establishment open for breakfast near the train and bus stations.  After a terrible breakfast there we purchased our bus tickets to Xilamuren, about 21 kuai for a two-hour bus ride.  In and around the bus station, touts claimed that in Xilamuren the grass was dead because it “had not rained in over a month” and that only their spot had any tall grass.  We ignored their lies; Lukas’ friend had been caught in an Inner Mongolian downpour within the past week.

When the bus platform opened we climbed in the back and watched the drunken or senile (or both) antics of an old bald Inner Mongolian man.  We could not understand his stuttering mixture of what must have been Chinese and Mongolian.  The local bus riders watched him with amusement.  It emerged that he had not purchased a ticket but still expected to ride the bus, and no amount of pleading by the bus driver and the passenger whom he had slighted could get him to move.  The bus pulled out with one too many passengers, but as it reached the gate pavilion a police woman stepped onto the bus and demanded that he get off the bus and buy a ticket for another bus.  He still would not move.  Physically removing him would have been far too embarrassing and a huge no-no in the Chinese concept of “face,” but the driver and police woman found a particularly Chinese solution.  The bus driver announced that there were problems with the bus and so we would have to swap buses.  He pulled back around to the bus platform and ushered everyone off, taking care to get the old man’s scarf off the bus seat where he left it.  Someone then escorted the man back into the bus station while the bus pulled up to the road and the driver instructed us to run after it, and we all jumped on and the door shut with the proper dues-paying passengers safely aboard.  Before the bus could leave the station altogether, the old man came running and yelling along the side and stood in front of the bus, decrying the injustice meted on his head.  I could not see what happened next, but I guess someone physically held him back while the bus entered the streets and drove away.

Hohhot is at the southern base of the Great Blue Mountains which rise to form the grasslands plateau.  The bus ride from the relatively polluted city into the mountains grants the rider with beautiful views of striking green grassy hills and a sky as blue as any Alabama has to offer.   By the time we reached Xilamuren, pollution was a totally forgotten phenomenon.  The wind was brisk and ever-present, like the outlet of a great oxygen factory.  This made us smile; when you live in Beijing, this sort of thing is a pleasure even if you just sit still for hours.

The bus dropped us off in a large tourist settlement full of concrete “yurts,” so we decided to walk up the road to find a car that could take us to a smaller collection of yurts.  Less than five minutes after walking up the main drag of Xilamuren, a woman on a motorcycle asked us where we were going to which we replied “Ulan Bator.”  She offered us a stay in one of her yurts, which she promised were much fewer in number than the large settlement and were suitably far away from this agglomeration at seven kilometers up the road.  After haggling the transport price down to 50 kuai for all of us and 100 kuai total for the yurt she agreed to our conditions.  We waited for about thirty minutes before her older sister took us up to the yurt settlement, which was an arrangement of about twenty yurts of differing amenity levels around a common courtyard.  It was small and nice, surrounded by nothing but grasslands and a few similarly-sized yurt settlements hundreds of meters to kilometers away.

It was only 10:00 so we dropped our bags in the yurt and ordered some goat or horse milk tea, I am not sure which.  The yurt boasted a picture of Kublai Khan at the back and a small table in the middle of the raised platform, which was our sleeping surface.  We relaxed with the tea and enjoyed the view of the grasslands, though the sky was rather cloudy and the air a bit chilly.  After a couple of hours and a few bites for lunch we were ready to ride horses.

Lukas Negotiates the Horse Prices
Lukas Negotiates the Horse Prices

I have ridden horses only thrice, the last time over ten years ago.  Each time I rode a horse that was unruly and would run off from the rest of the group, frightening the hell out of me, especially when one almost knocked my head off by nearly running me into a tree limb.  I told myself that now I am no longer a boy and I should be able to deal with it.  We paid for five hours of horse riding at 20 kuai per person per hour.  The first bad sign came when the guide angrily yelled and cursed at the manager that he had been riding all week and did not want to ride today.  He had a sour and angry look on his face the whole ride and would curse randomly.  Having an unhappy guide is not a desirable thing.

Within thirty minutes, after the horses began to trot and gallop, I was moaning in pain.  My horse’s stirrups were far too short.  Even once I figured out the sort of rhythmic rise and fall to avoid being jostled like a jackhammer by the horse’s trotting, my knees quickly gave out since I could not stretch them into a resting position.  It was like I was squatting the whole time, so I was unable to keep up the proper riding stance.  Plus, I received a terribly painful blister next to my tailbone from rubbing against the saddle.  After two hours of this, I knew I would never make it for three more, even though I felt bad for being the spoilsport to the others’ fun.  David was an experienced rider and Lukas handled his horse well enough, and while Jerry had a tough time of it he was clearly not in the same sad shape as me.  I started screaming with frustration and pain halfway through the ride, to which the guide paid no heed.  Thankfully, we stopped at a hut to relax and enjoy some tea, but every movement was painful.  From that point forward, we rode the horses at a walk back to the camp and everyone was sore.  Even right now, forty-eight hours later, sitting down and standing up is laborious and the blister’s pain has not yet been halved.

We took a couple of hours’ rest in the yurt and instructed the camp’s cook to prepare a roast leg of lamb for us.  After our rest we ordered some regular dishes which were surprisingly tasty albeit expensive since this was a tourist resort.  Upon finishing our beers and the regular dishes, a server brought in the glorious roast leg of lamb and placed it at the center of the table.  Our eyes lit up at its steaming mountains of perfectly-cooked flesh and well-rendered fat over thick, large bones.  The cook provided two knives, and we wasted no time in carving and savoring the flavorful bounty.  Lamb is one of my favorite things to eat in China, but it usually comes low-quality and thinly sliced as the barbecue shish kebab yang rou chuan’r sticks that must accompany any warm night out, and the cold ones too when it’s not so deadly icy that the stall cooks stay indoors.  This leg of lamb was orders of magnitude above those miserable sinews in comparison, cut fresh from a healthy specimen killed that day.  We sliced everything until only a small altar of forearm-sized bones remained on the table.  Coupled with teacup mixtures of Scottish Collie and Pepsi, we were satisfied that we had organized a good dudes’ weekend out.

Sunset of Xilamuren
Sunset of Xilamuren
Remnants of the Evening Feast
Remnants of the Evening Feast

Once we licked our lips clean of the lamb’s flesh, the proprietor called us out to the courtyard in the center of all the yurts to dance around the bonfire with the rest of the Chinese tourists.  We participated for a bit and played the regular laowai celebrities, getting our pictures taken with all of the Chinese people.  We then stepped out beyond the commotion of the techno dance party around the bonfire and walked into the darkness of the grasslands to enjoy the starry night sky.  It was the second-best star-scene I have seen in China, next to Nam Tso lake in Tibet.  Twenty minutes granted us with several shooting stars, possibly of Perseid origin, two satellites, and the full arching band of the Milky Way, interrupted only by fireworks from the courtyard and from other yurt settlements.

Before we made it back to our yurt, a Chinese businessman invited us to join him and his colleagues in their yurt.  We grabbed the two small bottles of Mongolian baijiu we purchased earlier and the large bottle of Pepsi and accompanied him to his yurt.  Eight Chinese businessmen greeted us.  They were just getting started on their evening of drinking, and in the middle of their table sat an entire roast lamb.  Lukas and David had seen this very lamb slaughtered earlier that evening.  They invited us to sit at the table,happy that we had brought a gift of liquor.  Before they carved the lamb, they had us all sing a song from our homelands and drink a full bowl of the 132-proof baijiu.  I sang “This Land is Your Land,” and Jerry sang “Henry the Eighth,” while Lukas sang a Czech song and David sang a Colombian song.  After we sang and downed the strong liquor, we were granted a blue khata scarf, a tradition shared by the Mongolians and Tibetans from their long history of cultural exchange.  The businessmen didn’t sing songs, but the girl who served food sang a song while each businessman stood at the front of the yurt, and when she finished singing he would down the bowl of baijiu and take the blue khata scarf.  Once this finished, one of our hosts began carving the lamb and offered everyone a generous slice, with we laowai receiving the first cuts.

Over the course of the evening we consumed about one-third of the lamb, six or seven slices for each of us.  We were heartbroken that we could not eat more of it, but it was clear that our hosts purchased the lamb more for its “face” value than for the actual enjoyment of its succulent meat.  It was more important for the boss of the company to show that he could buy the whole lamb than it was to finish eating it, a fact bolstered by their generous offerings of very expensive cigarettes – I turned them down because I don’t smoke, but if I was engaging in business negotiations with them I would have to accept and smoke them regardless of my personal practice.  Once we finished eating and chatting, the boss of the company directed us all in a simple drinking game in which he turned away from the circle and beat a plastic bottle with a chopstick while we all passed a pack of cards like a hot potato.  When the boss ceased tapping the bottle, whoever had the pack of cards had to take a shot of baijiu.  This continued for nearly an hour, so by the end of the evening we were all in merry spirits indeed.  During our chat, the businessman who invited us boasted that his son is the official in Beijing’s Chaoyang District (where the Central Business District and my office are located) who ultimately signs off on every construction approval in the District.  We surmised that these men, in addition to being the executives of a textiles company, must be semi-influential Party members as well.

Exhausted from so much eating and drinking, we went to bed at about 23:30 and groggily arose with the Sun at 7:30.  It was certainly hilarious to rise from the floor of the yurt to be greeted by the bony remains of our lamb feast from the previous night.  We chugged some water and set out on a grasslands walkabout.  Unlike the first day, there were no clouds in sight and the sun glowed warmly on the steppes.  We walked for nearly four hours, simply enjoying the perfect quiet and the clean air.  It is incredible that this idyllic natural escape is such a short hop away from the incessant clamor and choking air of Beijing.

Our Gracious Hosts
Our Gracious Hosts
Laowai Grassland Nomads
Laowai Grassland Nomads

We packed up our things from the yurt and caught a ride to Xilamuren’s bus stop, where the first bus to pass blew right down the road since it was full.  Not long after, a Chinese couple in a minivan offered to take us to Hohhot for a fee.  The man driving wanted to milk the foreigners for a handsome sum, but we managed to pay only 25 kuai each – just 4 RMB more than the bus ticket would have cost.  He exclaimed to his wife repeatedly that he could not believe he was taking us for such a small sum.

When we left their van in Hohhot, we ate some spicy noodle soup and then went to the Great Mosque, built in fully Chinese architectural style.  Even the minaret is topped by a Chinese-style pavilion roof, the crescent moon on top offering the only indication that this is an Islamic structure.  You can walk around the courtyard for free, but only people coming to pray can enter the prayer hall.  We spent the rest of the day relaxing in the shade of Hohhot’s completely not-old Old City, a disgusting “cultural preservation” that is full of lowbrow street games and low-quality art auctions.

Relaxing at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Relaxing at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Chinese Minaret at Hohhot's Great Mosque
Chinese Minaret at Hohhot's Great Mosque

We boarded the K90 train, which we dubbed “the famous jiǔ líng,” at 21:21 and laid our saddle-sore bodies right down to sleep.  I was thankful for the shower Monday morning, as none of us had cleaned anything but our teeth and our hands since we left Beijing.  The inexpensive and largely free-form trip was the most fun weekend trip I have taken in China, crowned by our night with the Chinese businessmen.

Tibet Trip

I took a trip to Tibet from June 12 – 21, accompanied by Swathish and three Germans: Swathish’s colleague Arndt, Arndt’s wife Carmen, and Carmen’s brother Gege.  It was all Swathish’s idea.

All of my pictures can be found in this set on Flickr.  A map of the places we went can be found here.

The Run-Up

Foreigners visiting Xizang Autonomous Region, as the political unit is officially known, are obliged to secure an official visiting permit before embarking on their trip.  Most people do this through one of many tour agencies which secure the permit, arrange the tour guide and driver (which are also obliged to accompany foreigners), provide accommodation and handle other logistics.  Swathish, his Chinese colleague Maggie and I visited a tour agency in west Beijing to discuss the specifics of what we wanted to do on our trip.  Swathish had picked out some top-ten destinations and thrown them together into an itinerary, which the agency made sense of while we were there.  I meant to do more research on them before this point but we were all quite busy.  Maggie was crucial in our negotiations with the tour agency, who naturally tried to get as much money out of us as they could, but Maggie managed to get several hundred RMB knocked off the price per person.  In the negotiations I mused that it would be great to visit one or two “less-visited” attractions that were beautiful but not overrun by tourists, and this tacked on an extra city and an extra day to our trip – to the complaint of no one.

The total price of the services provided by the tour agency, including a train ticket on the Qinghai-Tibet Railway from Xining to Lhasa, came to about 3,500 RMB.  When I told this to others who had been to Tibet or knew people who had gone recently, they expressed surprise that the price was low, which was an unexpected reaction.  After the whole experience was over, I realized that the best solution would have been to call around to get in direct touch with a Tibetan tour guide in Lhasa who could do the permits himself, as this would remove some of the costs and probably increase flexibility.  Never the matter – we were locked in and ready to travel, after separately purchasing a flight to Xining and then the return flight from Lhasa to Beijing, all told doubling the price of the trip.  Pain!

We met up at Arndt and Carmen’s apartment on the Friday evening before our departure to finalize plans and payment with the tour operator.  Later we enjoyed a large amount of street food in the shadow of the CBD as we got to know each other.  I left home to hit the sack in anticipation of a 5:00 AM rise time for our early flight, but the others stayed up to watch the first games of the World Cup.  Remembering what happened to me the last time I made such a mistake, I decided to learn from history rather than repeat it.

Xining and the Qinghai-Tibet Railway

Our flight on June 12, a Saturday, left at about 7:30 AM.  We landed in Xining, the eastern terminus of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway.  From there it connects to the rest of the country’s vast and expanding rail network.  We could have taken the train from Beijing to Xining and then to Lhasa, but such a move would have added days to our journey and probably would be uncomfortable after a while. We arrived a bit before noon and our train did not leave until about 16:00, so we took the bus from the airport to the town center and walked to the railway station.  A breeze blew and the sun was shining, so it was a pleasant time of day to sit out and enjoy some lunch on the terrace near the railway station.  We sat for a good two hours after eating, enjoying an interesting cocktail of various flowers, sugars and dried fruits brewed into a tea with infinite refills for ten kuai.  We must have enjoyed eight refills before the clouds rolled in and the breeze became a harsh gale, blowing all manner of dirt and construction dust in our faces.  Large bottles of water were purchased for the train ride, and we retreated to the safety of the station.

Xizang Rail Station
Xining Rail Station
The Germans
The Germans
The Huddled Masses Yearning to Go to Lhasa
The huddled masses yearning to go to Lhasa

After a long wait, we boarded the train.  Our tickets were for “hard sleeper” berths, which means you get one out of six beds in a car.  The top bunks are the cheapest, so we had five beds split among three next-door cells in the same car.  We engaged in ticket-trading with our neighbors to secure five beds in the same compartment within an hour of getting on the train.

Thus began our 24-hour trip on the Qingzang Railway, one of the world’s modern wonders.  Finished in 2006, it is an incredibly important and controversial development for a number of reasons.  The most obvious is the facilitated connection of Lhasa and Xizang Autonomous Region in general to the rest of China, which can be seen as any mixture of enormous economic opportunity for Tibet, Beijing tightening its grip on the restive land, the facilitation of massive Han immigration to Tibet, and the opening of Tibet to the rest of China along with many other issues I am not astute enough to know or express.  From an engineering standpoint the railway is a fascinating achievement.  Over 500 km of its nearly 2,000 km length is on permafrost, the top layer of which melts during part of the year.  The railway passes through Tanggula Pass at 5,072 m above sea level, making it the world’s highest railway.  As if this were not enough, the tracks run through the seismically active Kunlun Mountains.  Oxygen tents where the workers could breathe easier were set up to prevent altitude sickness.  I read that during the railway’s construction, the Chinese authorities put up propaganda slogans to inspire the workers: “Never Admit Defeat” and “Conquer Nature” were the most memorable.

The railway is a must for anyone visiting Tibet for the above reasons as well as two more important ones: its enchanting scenery and its role in mitigating the effects of altitude sickness.  My heart leaped with awe many times during the twelve or so hours of daylight we were awarded on the journey, and I wish my camera did not have to contend with the moving platform and snapping through smudgy glass to capture barren wastelands, mountains that looked straight out of Final Fantasy and herd after herd of wild yaks.  Altitude sickness is something that any traveler to a place higher than 2,000 m should consider.  Lhasa’s altitude is 3,490 m and most of the tourist areas in the surrounding area are higher, some as high as 5,000 m.  Although it would be ideal to ascend 500 m every two days, starting at Xining’s 2,275 m and taking 24 hours to settle over 1 km higher is better than flying straight from sea level to Lhasa.

The Companions in Our Compartment
The companions in our compartment
Swathish Enjoys Train Food
Swathish enjoys train food
A Qinghai Railway Scene
A Qinghai railway scene
Blinded By The Light
Blinded by The Light

The following image was my favorite mountain on the railway.  I wish we had passed much closer.   It seemed to me to be a roadway leading to the heavens.  Someday I hope to climb this mountain.

The Road to Heaven
The Road to Heaven

After the sun came to rest in the West, there was not much to do except read and chat.  I read halfway through Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” and drifted off while Swathish played Dire Straits and Queen from his phone. In the morning I awoke a bit later than the others, but the sun was only about one hour awake itself.  Here we traversed the permafrost portion of the railway, having passed into Xizang during the dark hours of the morning.  Whilst asleep my mouth dried out more than I ever recall, due to the rising altitude and resultant dehydration.  I chugged a 1.5 liter bottle of water and got some breakfast, then I took a few pictures.

Permafrost Morning
Permafrost morning
Onlookers
Onlookers
The Long Road on the Xizang Plateau
The long road on the Xizang Plateau

Most of the day I spent reading and sitting by the window, enjoying the beautiful endless landscape.  While I sat in the corridor, a woman from the group of Koreans neighboring our compartment sat across from me.  She spoke good English and claimed to be “from LA,” but I think she had just lived there for a while at some point in her life.  When I asked what they were going to do in Tibet, she quickly glanced around and then did a short hands-together praying motion.  I surmised that they were a group of evangelicals visiting Tibet for the stated purpose of tourism, but were really going to proselytize, which she practiced on me after twenty minutes of idle conversation.

Spaced out approximately every fifty kilometers or so (by my baseless estimation) was a tiny outpost tent made of thick thermal blanket material, situated a couple dozen meters from the track.  Each one flew a modest-sized PRC flag and was staffed by a single soldier, who saluted the train as it passed.  I noticed one such outpost for every settlement in Tibet, even hamlets of only ten dwellings.  Paranoia strikes deep.

Continue reading Tibet Trip

Choosing Three Wishes

It crossed my mind today: if a higher being with the power to grant requests asked me what three things I would like to receive, what would I choose?

Given this is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I would not be mentally prepared to know what to ask for if the offer came suddenly.  Supernatural beings who can give you anything you want don’t seem to be the type to patiently wait while you study text, myths, triumphs and failures to discern how to best maximize your gains.

There are different ways to approach answering the question.  The two most basic I can identify are deciding what will best benefit your interests and situation by providing you with the necessary keys and environment to achieve your goals, or alternatively determining how a supernatural being thinks and makes choices so the things you ask for will be granted in such a way as to maximize your interests.  A major component of the granting is how the deity interprets your wishes.  In a simplistic example you could say “I want to be the richest man in the world” and receive an amount of money in your bank account and some kind of inheritance and that’s it.  But in the legends and fairy tales we hear of people who receive supernatural gifts, whether earned or not; such statements are always counterbalanced with disasters.  Your inheritance could be disputed by a powerful criminal cartel, you could come under immediate IRS investigation, or you could be overcome by selfish greed and fulfill the adage of “Mo’ money, mo’ problems.”

Thus, if you subscribe to the more simple granting scheme it would probably be better to ask for the means to solve a specific problem.  “Get me out of poverty” or “make my family financially secure” may be looked upon more favorably because it is not asking to put you on the level of the god granting you the wish.  The life of a human is limited; this is our gift, and knocking that out of balance with something so absolute would be disastrous.

I would approach it from the other perspective: the deity will in some way make a judgment about your wishes and that will affect the granting.  For this reason I think it would be unwise to ask for “absolute power” because power is fleeting, power corrupts, and the deity knows all of this.  The deity will be disappointed and likely you will become its slave as a result of the granting.  Even as the billions cry for mercy in the grip of your fingers, how much more your own throat will be clutched by the vise of the god to whom you owe your power.

Thus I reject completely selfish gains and would seek instead to receive divine gifts, not take divine powers. Yet the division between selfishness and selflessness still ought to be considered.  Would the deity mock you if you only wished for “world peace?”  Or would it consider you small-minded if you only wished for things for yourself?  Should you choose one personal skill, one personal pleasure and one let’s-benefit-everyone or some other combination?

I would try to play the role of the hero who receives the gifts of the father / heaven and takes them back to make the world better.  I would try to make one of the wishes give me pleasure as well as responsibility, but the others would purely empower me to solve problems or help improve the world.  What they would be, though, I am not sure.

If I had asked myself this question a year and a half ago I think I would know at least half the answer.  That I don’t know it right now says something.

The Long City Beneath My Feet

The last few weeks have been busy, hot and fun.  I am quite tied up on weeknights with Chinese lessons on Monday and Wednesday and the new Beijing Debate Society meetings on Thursdays.  Tonight is our inaugural beyond-the-core-members debate.  This leaves Tuesday as my only “free” night, and it is usually packed with whatever I can’t fit in elsewhere during the week.

I went to Hangzhou a few weekends ago with Jon, Sara, Jerry and Richard for an AIESEC reception weekend.  It was a lot of fun and Hangzhou is beautiful, but the barbecue the LC threw for us on Sunday made us all ill.  I find that the longer I am in Asia, the more resilient my stomach becomes to these incidents.  If had this food when I first arrived, I would have been bedridden for a week.  Now it is just an uncomfortable inconvenience.

Jeff and his buddy Kyle came over from Seoul to visit me for several days in the latter half of last week.  They arrived Wednesday evening and left Sunday morning.  Amid gorging ourselves on delicious Da Dong duck and wandering the hutongs of this mysterious city, our best day was Thursday, when we hiked 12km on the Great Wall from the Simatai section to the Jinshanling section.

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This required getting in the car at 06:30, and Charles and Kathy were kind enough to drive us all the two hours it took to get there.  But why would they drive all the way up there for us?  Perhaps because when we descended from Jinshanling, we changed from our sweaty shirts into the clean alternatives we had packed and headed into TEDxGreatWall.  This was the first TED(x) event I had ever attended.  I have to say that the talks were somewhat lackluster in comparison to the ones online for the official TED event, but hanging out on the Wall afterward, drinking champagne and watching the sunset before eating a nice dinner and jumping over a fire was quite nice.  And free.  Many thanks to James for letting me know about the event.

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Part of the TEDxGreatWall event on the Wall itself, just before the sunset, was to ponder and record either a map or a haiku about where we are with our personal walls.  I came up with this, related directly to my anxiety about finding a job in DC:

A sea of ideas

My ship is seeking dry land

When will Spring begin?

On Tuesday evening, Adam organized a gathering to eat local, non-“restaurant” food in a hutong alley, just to hang out and enjoy some food and beers and to contribute money directly to locals.  The hutong we visited wound up being the most “authentic” hutong I have seen in Beijing.  It is long and bustling and full of Chinese people eating and selling and drinking, and there is not even so much as a print ad for something foreign, much less any McDonald’s or restored areas.  Even more amazing, it is just north of the wall of the Temple of Heaven park, and just south of a subway station.  How has this place not been Qianmen-ified?  If you ever come to Beijing, do give Ciqikou in Chongwen district a fair shake one evening when you feel like ambling with no purpose but to fill your eyes and your belly.

Photography Workshop

A couple Saturdays ago, Ben and I took a photography workshop put on by my language school, CultureYard, and administered by Peter Carney.

Patrick was supposed to attend as well, but unfortunately he lost his camera charger.  Adding in another cancellation brought the final student count to three: myself, Ben, and a Chinese girl named Julia.  Though this was probably disappointing to Peter, it meant that he was able to invest more time in each of us than he could have otherwise.

The eight-hour day started at 10:00, when we met at CultureYard for an hour or so presentation by Peter on the fundamentals of good photography.  Some of the stuff early on I knew already, but a good 60% of it was new information, or presented in a way that made me understand it in a new way.  Presenting the balance between ISO, shutter speed and aperture as the “ISO triangle” helped me to better grasp how to shift these different settings.  I had heard of dividing a photo frame into thirds, but when he showed several examples of pictures overlaid with a nine-box grid, it snapped into focus.  He pointed out that the intersection of the lateral and longitudinal thirds divisions, where the center “box” made by the division of the frame into thirds had its corners, are called the “golden points” and that they are where you want the most interesting things in your photo to be.  Many cameras have a grid overlay option to see those in your viewfinder before snapping a photo, but unfortunately Canons (I have a Canon EOS350) do not.  Before this workshop, I always shot in large-file JPEG, but from now on I will shoot in RAW.  I learned how to set permanent under and overexposure.  I figured out why my viewfinder always made shots blurry – I had inadvertently set the vision correction dial up a few notches, and when Peter showed me what the dial did, I turned it down to zero and now I can see perfectly clearly.  I learned how to spot focus and spot meter.  I learned that by keeping the camera in aperture priority mode and keeping ISO as low as possible unless absolutely necessary, I could spend less time fiddling with dials and more time taking great photographs.

This was all before going out into the hutongs of Dongcheng and actually snapping photos!

There were two photo-shooting sessions.  The first was before lunch, the second one after.  The first session was spent in Fangjia Hutong and on the walk from CultureYard to there.
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Here are some of my photos from that shoot:

Preston-1153

Preston-1193

Preston-1205

Preston-1216

Preston-1223

Preston-1235

Preston-1242

After we reached the far end of Fangjia Hutong we returned to lunch at CultureYard while Peter coached us on our photos and what to do to improve them.  This was such a valuable part of the workshop for me.  He had his laptop screen hooked up to the big TV, and so we could all see in high detail the photos we had just taken.  We used Adobe Lightroom (oh how I wish there was a quality equivalent for Linux!) to process the photos here.  When I uploaded my photos, I went through and marked the ones I thought were keepers with a green flag, and then Peter went back and marked the ones he thought were keepers with a yellow flag.  He gave feedback on the composition, focus, and content of the photos, and when something could be improved to make the photo work better, he used Lightroom’s tools to change color balances and do some cropping.  I was surprised how sometimes, working hard to capture a certain image did not bring out what was desired, while some images snapped in haste turned out fantastically.  We saw what was good about each others’ photos too, which was fun and helped our understanding.  Personally I thought that among the three students, I had the weakest photography.  Julia took extremely compelling pictures of people, and Ben made litter, trash and forgotten signage look textbook-worthy.

After finishing lunch and the review of our first session photographs, we went to snap some more in the more touristy Guozijian Hutong, and finally just inside the border of the second ring road, Wudaoying Hutong a.k.a. the “New Nanluoguxiang.”  A selection of my shots from that session:

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Preston-1300

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Preston-1351

Preston-1385

We finished up in a cafe in Wudaoying, where we reviewed our photos on Peter’s laptop since we had gone over time.

All of my photos from the shoot can be found here.