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Archive for September, 2010

"How many great men are forgotten through the ages?
Great drinkers are better know than sober sages…
I only want to drink and never wake up."

-Li Bai
Tany Dynasty Poet

The Chinese drinking culture has quite a long history. Drunkenness was almost a virtue during imperial times, and the rich and cultured enjoyed many elaborate drinking rituals during elaborate banquets. It was believed that the best calligraphy and poetry came from deeply inebriated artists. The poet which I have quoted above died from drowning in a pool of water, he fell in during a conversation with the moon’s reflection.

Traditionally, the alcohol of choice is baijiu, a clear liquor usually ranging between 80-120 proof. It’s distilled from grains (typically sorghum or rice), and it’s the drink of choice for business meetings.

My management professor always tells us good baijiu makes good friends. You get drunk once together you’re okay friends. You get drunk lots of times, you’re good friends. Before you sign a contract with someone drink lots of good baijiu. If you buy bad baijiu they won’t sign your contract.

Baijiu is an acquired taste, and anyone doing business in China should be prepared. The typical baijiu ritual involves mass quantities of the stuff and shouting gan bei , which means ‘dry the cup.’ If you scroll down my blog, to day nine of the Silk Road trip, you can see a picture of me during a baijiu ritual with a Tibetan family.

Beer (píjiǔ) is dated back to about 7000 bce. It was brewed from rice and other local spices. Modern beer was first brought to China by the Russians, at a brewery in Harbin. The best selling beer, and most exported, Tsingtao, was set up by the Germans in 1903. Tsingtao is, like almost all beer in China, a light pilsner. It’s generally sold in large green bottles; they go for 3-4rmb ($.40) at local stores, at bars the 12oz bottles will run you 20-40rmb ($3-6). Tsingtao is one of the few publicly traded Chinese beer companies. If you can find it in the states, pick up a six pack to try.

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The Following is my submission for TBC’s photo contest. My theme reflects one thing that is common throughout all of China – construction. While we may have traversed landscapes that varied from desert to mountain highland, this was one constant. China’s breathtaking 12%+ economic growth over the last

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Last weekend I went to 798 on Friday night, it’s the modern art district. I really would reccomend checking this place out – but during the day. Their power supply isn’t stable, so most of the galleries are shut down. But we were able to see one that had this cool piece of art mocking BP’s Deepwater Horizon Rig.

On Saturday we went to the Forbiddn City for a few hours. It’s really quite amazing, and I could not get over the scale of the city; they have these huge copper pots covered in gold all over the city to hold water in case of fire. We went to the Hall of Clocks, which has a number of ornamental clocks from both Chinese and European manufactueres.

This week is the Festival of the Moon, its a holiday based off of the Lunar Calander. I keep asking people what it is, and my the most common response is ‘people eat mooncakes and see family.’ It gives us a break from classes,

Classes are going well, I’m actually starting to enjoy Mandarin. It’s a challenging language, but learning it gives me another perspective into the culture here. I keep trying to express emotion when I speak, like raising my voice to ask a question; and in a tonal language that just throws off the meaning of your words. I’m not a huge fan of the Chinese style of teaching, which largely consists of reading straight out of a book or off a powerpoint. After asking my tutor doesen’t she want to participate in class, she made a comment to the effect ‘when you go to the movies do you want to act?’ Life is very stressful for the Chinese student, to get into this university they had to be the top scorers on a three day exam (going from 8am to 5pm). Most kids take 8-12 classes, and many take extra language courses on the weekend (English and Japanese are popular). Going out on the weekends is unthinkable. Its an amazing insight into culture here, and gives me some idea why suicide is the leading cause of death for 18 – 30 year olds (respritory illness is the leading cause of death nationwide)…

I’m learning a lot though, my teachers are really brilliant; they know of the American style and really try to foster class discussion.

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Friday night I went with a few friends to see the lowering of the flag for sunset at Tianamen Square. It was amazing to actually be at this historic site, and see the outside of the Forbidden City (I’ll be going there this Saturday).

Once again, I was approached to take a picture with some local giggling girls. This time I asked one of my friends to take a picture as well, just for laughs. It is common for Chinese to hold up a “v”, but this means victory here – not peace.

I was really surprised by the amount of homeless here, its a big problem in this city…

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Day 12:

Our overnight train arrived in Xi’an at 8am, and we were at the Terracotta Warrior Museum by 10. These statues were made over 2,200 years ago to guard the tomb of China’s emperor – Qun Shi Huang. There are over 7,00 soldiers, all of which have unique faces and detail on the bodies. It’s believed that their faces were copied off of the workers who made the tomb. It’s an amazing experience to see these replicas, and to think of all the lives that were shed to build it. The emperor had all of the workers buried alive, so that the sites location would remain secret. His most beloved concubines suffered a similar fate.

In the afternoon I had free time to wander about the city. Xi’an is home to some of the top engineering and technical colleges outside of Beijing, As a result there is a vast amount of industry within this ancient city. The city center is fortified with a massive wall, which reminds me of the the Great Wall.

Day 13:

Today we visited the Small Goose Pagoda, which was constructed during the Tang dynasty. It is thirteen stories tall, for a total height of 142 feet. Pagodas have a religious function and were typically located near Buddhist or Taoist temples.

We then took our final overnight train back to Beijing. The last two weeks have been amazing, covering 1,200 miles, terrains ranging from desert to grasslands where the ground remains frozen for the majority of the year, cultures ranging from Muslim to Buddhist, and viewing some of the wonders of the ancient world.

It was an amazing trip, but I am glad to be back in Beijing.

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Day 9 – 11

I forgot to mention in my last post my reason for putting a picture of my lunch for Day 8. Enlarge the picture, notice anything odd? The noodles were quite good, despite the added surprise…

Day 9

Our train arrived in Lanzhou at 8am and we drove for about five hours to Xia’he (remember x is pronounced as sh). We checked into a beautiful hotel, decorated with Tibetan prayer flags and other traditional decorations.

Xia’he is in a mountain valley at the edge of the Tibetan plateau, technically it is in Gansu province, culturally it is Tibet. This city is home to the Labrang Monastery, where thousands of pilgrims flock every year to celebrate. This region is not part of the Tibet Autonomous Region, which was formed in 1965, but was historically administered by local rulers – not the Dalai Lama from Lhasa. Yet the Tibetan government-in-exile claims this region.

The Tibetan population numbers about 4.6 million, and were originally great warriors. During the Qin and Han dynasties these people dominated the region, but stopped their warrior ways when they were introduced to Buddhism from disciples traveling the Silk Road. Tibetans have their own language, letters, and calender; most do not speak Mandarin or any other form of Chinese. Many people still wear the original garb, which consists of brightly colored silk or cloth jackets. Xia’he was cold even in August, the ground is frozen for the majority of the year.

At night we had dinner with a local family. It consisted of, dumplings, yak butter tea, yak milk yogurt, mutton, zanba (a grain), and barley. The meal was finished with a generous helping of local rice spirits, which you see me enjoying.

Day 10 (Sept. 1)

Today I woke up a touch before 4:30am. I took about an hour and a half to walk along the exterior of the monastery, it’s over 2 miles long. This may seem a bit bizarre, but this is a daily ritual for many locals and all of the monks. While walking these people are mumbling prayers and spinning prayer wheels. These elaborate wheels have scrolls inside of them, with a prayer written on it. Every time one is spun clockwise the prayer is sent to heaven to the Buddha. Never spin a prayer wheel counter clockwise. The prayer wheel is also important as it give a largely illiterate population the ability to pray. This was easily one of the top moments of the trip. Aside from being an incredibly peaceful experience, I witnessed some amazing sights. There was an elderly monk on crutches, who could hardly walk, spinning wheel after wheel. He would use his crutches to get to a stretch of wheels and then spin each individual one, using them as support – both spiritually and physically. There was another monk who was on his hands and knees praying, took a handful of rocks and threw them, went to where the rocks landed, got down and prayed. He would only travel as far as he could throw.

After competing the walk I took a nap before heading back to the monastery for a guided tour. A monk took us throughout this beautiful monastery. This is the most important center of the Yellow hat Sect (Gelugpa) outside of Tibet. Due to the Cultural Revolution, it was closed until 1980, and the number of monks dwindled from 4,000 to 1,200 today. In addition to being a place of worship, it is also a college – specializing in philosophy, medicine, mathematics, and astronomy. The Grand Sutra Hall can hold over 4,000 monks – walking through and hearing them chant was eerily impressive.

The monastery has some impressive sights, from yak butter sculptures which are meticulously carved by monks as offering to the Buddha during the winter festivals to young boys who have entered the order. Boys usually enter around the age of six to nine, and are given the choice later to leave. The retention rate has dropped, as many of the monks own computers and cell phones. I would highly recommend anyone traveling in China to make this city a top priority to visit, it is not the average tourist spot.

Day 11

Today was yet another day of travel. We visited two Mosques, one in the Islamic style and one in the traditional Chinese style. We stopped for lunch in Lanzhou (see photos). n tsat for about 2 hours with a few friends and enjoyed a cold* beer on the yellow river.

We took another overnight train to Xi’an. Tomorrow we will see the Terracotta warriors.

*Electricity is very exspensive in China, most beer is served at room temperature; anything remotely cooler than that is considered cold…

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