Sunday, October 25, 2009

If only it were vacant on purpose

"Total vacant land in Detroit now occupies an area almost the size of Boston, according to a Detroit Free Press estimate."

My god.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Jaw on floor

Well, this oughta silence those mumblings that his international influence wasn't enough to get the Olympic bid.

Too early? I don't need to turn on Fox to know that those commentators are already saying, "Give me a break." I suppose it's already an achievement to have changed the mindset of the international community and given so many people hope. That is, assuming that people feel that way, and many do. Within America, of course, we've been a bit more fickle, fearing the stock market and unemployment and blaming Obama for not fixing everything NOW. Look at his rollercoastering approval ratings.

For that matter, I would bet that most Americans will be doubly surprised by this because we've paid so much attention to his domestic agenda lately (healthcare, cars) that nobody is thinking at all about nuclear proliferation. Afghanistan's had a bit more air time, but it's far from being the #1 issue on everyone's radar yet.

All in all? Too early, yes. Because so much more is expected from him. If he really has changed the world climate, metaphorically at least, it's a good start. But in order to silence the critics, he'll have to change the climate in reality. Kyoto II, here we come.

P.S. Very America-centric Nobel year. I don't recall so many Americans getting the prizes in years in the science fields. Wonder who will get economics.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

I'll huff and I'll puff

And then I'll get overheated. Climbing the Great Wall was a real experience, though true adventurers should definitely head for the unrestored wall on a tour with Wild China or Wild Wall, or even just the day hike from Jianshanling to Simatai. We headed for Mutianyu, about an hour directly north of Beijing, a drive taking you through small towns and past tons of newly planted trees, which a Chinese student told us were done to cut down dust for the Olympics.

Mutianyu is well restored, but at least early in the morning, quite peaceful. When we started climbing around (before 9am), we were perhaps two of ten people on the Wall. It was, as promised, steep and slightly perilous in parts, even though so well restored. I didn't see anyone tumble, but I did hear people saying that they had fallen down stair sections. I calmly and shamelessly resorted to all fours on the steep parts. Why not? Easier than trying to hang off a shoulder-height flanking wall.

The little watchtowers were quite interesting, though of course bare. Little animal stone carvings decorate the corners, and you could even climb up on the roof of some of them. The unrestored section isn't just slightly crumbly on top; it's completely overgrown with shrubs and weeds. You can barely see the wall. I'd imagine that the Wild China tours must go to parts of the wall that are in a more desert location than Mutianyu's greenery, which was quite lush. We got good views of it from the ski lift that carries you up, and then on the toboggan that you can take down. My first toboggan ride! It would have been more fun if the middle-aged European lady in front of me hadn't been terrified to go at more than a crawl.

All in all, an excellent half-day trip, complete with a lovely, friendly cab driver (a black taxi arranged by our concierge). We bought him a bottle of tea, and he then felt compelled to stop and buy us some fruit.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Cutting a swathe

Let's step back to China, shall we? I scarcely know where to start there either, but here's the summary of what we hit: Forbidden City, Wangfujing shopping street and snack street, Lama Temple, Pearl Market, Mao's mausoleum in Tiananmen Square, several Excellent restaurants, and the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

Oh, what the hell, let's start with the food. We didn't do so well the first day—as a matter of fact, we barely ate, as I recall, snacking on a few buns for lunch and getting some soup dumplings in a mall food court for dinner. The second day, we did much better. We thoroughly pigged out on the best dim sum I've ever had at Crystal Jade restaurant in one of the malls on Wangfujing. It was a pretty ritzy restaurant, pricey by Chinese standards, but worth every penny. Excellent service, very little English, leading to a hilarious pantomime when my friend wanted hot sauce.

In the evening, we hit the famous Li Qun roast duck restaurant, to which Mao supposedly used to send his driver to pick up a bird or two. More hilarity here. Guidebooks and maps gave us a general idea of where it was. I paused at a newspaper kiosk to ask the young proprietor if we were on the right track by eloquently handing him the card on which our concierge had written the name. “Ah, Li Qun,” he said thoughtfully. I nodded eagerly. He thought hard and added, “Duck.” I nodded again. He pointed straight, then right.

We knew we were on the right track when we were accosted by an enterprising bike taxi driver, but we waved him away and kept walking. Empty taxis going past us gave me hope, and sure enough the restaurant was right there. My friend remarked on what an ass she'd have felt like if we'd taken the ricksha! Though very, very famous, the place is still an unassuming hole in the wall and none too nice, but more importantly, I've never had such duck in my life. I don't like duck in the U.S. – it's too oily and gamy for me – but this slow woodroasted duck drips the fat out, leaving a tender, flavorful white meat that you roll up with cucumbers and scallions (not me) in little mu shu, dip in the special sauce (some kind of fermented bean base, I think) and eat till you feel like exploding. When we got there, only Chinese customers were around, but some Americans trickled in as real dinnertime approached. When we left, we nearly split our already-splitting sides with laughter; as you exit, on the whitewashed wall ahead of you is stenciled a little cartoon duck and the words “DUCK OK.” I wish I'd taken a picture.

On our last day, we came back from the Wall close to ravenous, and hit one of the oldest Chinese Muslim restaurants in town, Dong Lai Shun, conveniently right on Wangfujing. We had classic hot pot, which we filled with noodles, potatoes, pea shoots, mutton, and scallops, and chased with their delicious little sesame bread cakes. For the record, scallops suck in hot pot – fishing them out is much too hard.

Then it was off to the conference, where food was abundant but not nearly so good, of course. But those two days were ones for the books, for sure.

Once upon a sword

Another airplane post. Look, I've got time to kill and can't sleep.

My last day in Tokyo, I was really torn about what to do, and ended up heading for a slightly off-the-beaten path site, the temple of Sengaku-ji. Off the usual path but celebrated enough to have its own metro stop. This temple is the site of one of Japan's most famous stories from the samurai era, this one the 18th century. The story of the Forty-Seven Ronin is a bloody tale of revenge, hara-kiri, and chivalry. Read the full version on wikipedia; I can't do it better. In very short, a band of forty-seven masterless samurai plotted for two years to avenge their dead master, led by the famous Oishi. They succeeded, carrying off the enemy's head in triumph, but were in turn condemned to commit honorable suicide, which all of them did except one, the youngest, who was pardoned, lived to a ripe old age, and was buried with his comrades. The story became a celebrated tale of loyalty and honor.

The temple is where their master was buried, and all of them with him. It was very quiet, with a few pensioners sitting and snoozing in the courtyard and then some young folks coming to eat lunch on the benches. Only a very few other tourists, all Japanese. The museum has many original documents and artifacts, including, most famously, the receipt the priests wrote out when Oishi returned the enemy's head to his family for burial. There are also letters and documents written by him, and the war drum that the ronin supposedly used on their raid. Most cool of all, I thought, was one of the copies of the ronin's objectives in the raid, which they left behind and also pasted on their enemy's gate the night of the action. What a tale.

I ought to end there, but will just add that I wish I spoke or read a little Japanese to get the most out of this place. The ticket seller barely spoke any English, so I couldn't ask him questions, but I wasn't sure who was buried where. I took photos and will have to ask friends for translations.