30 September 2018

Massage and herbal bath

They opened a new massage parlor near home. It is the second branch of a company we tried last year. They offer a broad series of treatments, they sell beauty products and they complement it all with a herbal bath in a hot water tub.

It is located on 12th floor of an apartment building that includes lots of modern shops and, at the ground floor, one of the biggest supermarkets in town.

I am surprised to see this kind of service in a town at Guiyang's stage of development. Is it a sign of gentrification in the area?

The masseuses are all ladies, no masseurs. There are several rooms, each with one or two massage beds and, in an en-suite bathroom, a wooden tub. The tub is lined with a thin transparent film and filled with hot water. A bag of herbs is sunk into the water an hour or so before the treatment so as to diffuse its scent through the water and the whole bathroom.

Before the treatment they offer tea. The masseuses are mostly little skinny girls but they are very strong. They massage especially hard massage at the base of my skull, which is a bit painful but I can feel the muscles and joints enjoying it.

At the end I feel great my joints are smooth, my muscles relaxed and a big red area on my back, along my upper back, demonstrates the energy the little girl has put in her hands as they pressed and slid along my spine.

More tea is provided at the end of a blissful hour and a half of treatment.

As I leave my masseuse and two others escort me to the elevator, I thanked them and asked if they were hungry for lunch now and they nodded in unison, and wave goodbye.

The subscription for this parlor is 3988 Rmb for 20 treatments no expiration date. It is not cheap, actually very expensive for local salaries (about two months' wages of a waiter) but they are in business and expanding, and there are no tourists in the city, so the only explanation is that there is a growing middle class who is eager to use this kind of services!

27 September 2018

Grey day and wedding

Grey day at home working on the English edition of my Maldives book.

Mother in law and niece went to a wedding of some neighbors from Yan Jia village who are throwing a party in Chenzhou.

We had decided to go for lunch to a Korean restaurant in town, one of many new restaurants with foreign food which are open for business trying to attract the up and coming local middle class. Been there before, but would love to go again, look forward to some different kind of food. However, the clouds and especially the cold drizzle eventually act as a powerful deterrent and we decide to stay home.

Mother comes back with plastic bags full of of food, left overs from banquet: fruits sweets even a half kilo or so of delicious spicy prawns. It's the custom here: invitees to wedding receptions take home their share of leftovers. She said they took away the least compared to everyone else at the party. Some parents unabashedly tell their children to grab as much as possible as fast as possible!

23 September 2018

Market n. 2 in Guiyang

Morning to buy food for the lanterns day celebrations at Market n.2, just a kilometer or so from home.

On the way I cross paths with a lady who is carrying a balancing basket. She is collecting paper and plastic bottles to sell back to commercial recycling companies, apparently a common activity here.

Lots of sellers of ducks line up the streets today, it is the traditional moon festival meal. All the ducks, of course, are sold alive and kicking in their reed baskets.

One lady buys a duck but she does not trust the seller's scale, so she grabs her animal  and asks the next seller down the sidewalk to weigh it, not sure how it turned out but she bought the duck, 30 Rmb, about 4 euro.

The market is very busy, meat fish (always alive in water tanks) veggies of all kinds. Large quarters of cows are hanging from the roof of the covered market, and the butcher slices off any cut and size his clients require. On one side, a man with a grinder produces the typical spicy chili paste that is so common in Hunan cuisine.

As I snap away a policeman approaches me and Lifang and explains he doesn't want me to take pictures of his police car, which I haven't done and have no interest in doing anyway.

 A little girl drinks fresh juice out of a plastic cup then throws cup on ground, I pick it up and try to show her to hold on to it until she can put it in a bin but her mother takes it from her and shows her how to throw it... on the ground! I give up.

At home mother in law has bought a duck, which is swiftly slaughtered in the bathroom, fairly quickly and effortlessly. The blood flowing from the neck is collected to make bean curd and then used in a soup. It's very delicious!

22 September 2018

Train from Hangzhou to Chenzhou

Grey sky drizzling. We pack our stuff check out of the hotel and are off to station with an ever reliable didi car.

At the station we are welcomed by a very crowded waiting hall, lots of people going home for the mid-autumn day celebrations.

Lifang goes to get the tickets she has booked online while I wait in line to check-in. I've got all our suitcases and proceed with some difficulty. It's all the more difficult because the wheels of one suitcase are broken, so I have to drag it. But instead of helping me people try to jump the queue and get ahead of me. I manage to keep them behind me and make slow progress.

When she's back we go through to the waiting room a huge hall with thousands of people waiting for their train. From here batches of  travelers are admitted to the platform in the order of departure of their train.

Lifang manages to buy some bananas and processed duck meat for the trip, we've skipped lunch after all. I like the boneless duck bums especially!

The station is quite impressive. Electronic boards show the next 3 or 4 departing trains: red letters and numbers when you need to wait, yellow when you need to get ready and green when the gates (which look like those at the London subway) are open. We slip our tickets through and take the escalator down to the platform.

Then it's time to take position at the color-coded marks on the ground which indicate where each car will stop.

When the train arrives and stops with millimetric precision where it is supposed to stop I'm pleasantly surprised to see departing passengers patiently let arriving travelers off the train first!

We board and struggle to find a place to put our luggage, the aisle is so crowded.

We're off at 300+kmh through Zhejiang province toward Hunan. We barrel through fields of farms, many towns and cities where modern tall and thin residential buildings contrast with old traditional houses.

Too many screaming Chinese children on train, parents could do better to calm them down. Or not. Half the passengers are listening to their favorite TV program or playing a video game online, and not one of them is using earphones. the result is a somewhat less than enjoyable persistent monotonous and loud cacophony.

Once we get to Chenzhou we need a taxi (or Didi) to Guiyang. There is a taxi stand by the station, the fare is 100 Rmb. We try and get something cheaper but end up wasting time with an unofficial taxi before calling a Didi and getting home for dinner! Lesson learned: you may save a few Rmb by using unofficial and/or pooled transportation, but it's probably not worth the hassle!

21 September 2018

Temples in Hangzhou

After breakfast we take a trusted Didi car to the old city street, then walk up to the Dongyue temple. As soon as we arrived and walked inside the temple it started pouring cat and dogs. Not so convenient for walking around but it made for a picturesque scenery and it cooled down the air.

Three ladies are silently practicing tachi by entrance to the temple, completely oblivious to our presence.

The temple is from the Song dynasty and it contains Tao figures from before tang dynasty as well as big paintings celebrating inauguration of an emperor of the dynasty. We spend quite a bit of time looking at pictures for details. These celebrations lasted 67 days and cost 8 million yuan which at the time was an enormous amount of money.

The highlight of the day is our visit to the temple of the Soul's Retreat. It is a huge complex of several temples. As we walk in past the electronic ticket check we are greeted by a long series of Buddhas carved in the stone of the adjacent hills.

In the first temple a couple paid the monks to get their blessing. It was not their wedding, that had been done before, but a kind of enactment of a ceremony that to my untrained eye looked like a wedding. The groom is dressed very casually, just a cheap t-shirt really, while she is a little bit more elegant, but still no wedding attire of any kind. The monks, some thirty of them, gather at one corner of the temple and recite their mantras while the couple make an offer to a small altar lit by a few candles.

They then move to centerstage for more blessings and some drum playing by the monks.

We finally go outside with them and place incense sticks in a large bronze cauldron by the back door.

We spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around the huge complex. I can't see any foreign tourist, though there are many Chinese visitors, including quite a few pilgrims.

In one building we find a traditional writing desk with brushed and ink for people to try their calligraphy. More interestingly, there is a set of traditional robes and hats, for man and woman, for any one to try on for free. There is no one to be seen so my wife and I take our turns at dressing up and posing as a traditional Song dynasty family!

Dinner is back at Grandma, this time we share a table with a couple of middle-aged and rather large Chinese guys who keep ordering more food than they can possibly ingest. That seems to be a recurring trait in upscale restaurants in China. Maybe they do it to show off, I am not sure. Maybe the sudden abundance of wealth and food over the last few years still needs to be matched with a culture of avoiding waste.

19 September 2018

Hangzhou: Confucius temple and pork intestine

Large temple dedicated to Confucius near our hotel. I am almost the only visitor or maybe just three or four couples share the quiet air conditioned rooms and courtyards with me

There is a large collection of Stèles inscribed with figures of wise men and confucian texts. Many have been heavily damaged over the centuries but have now been meticulously restored and preserved. A serene place that I am sorry to leave.

I reflect how this is in stark contrast with the way that treasures were treated in recent past when doing the cultural revolution the red the guards destroyed with abandon anything that had to do with ancient Chinese culture.

Later took a walk around the west lake shore. I sat down and absorbed the landscape on a bench by the water. Lots of Chinese tourists and and all the German or French here and there. it is very hot and humid otherwise I would have taken a ride on one of the gondolas that ferry tourists around the lake.

I have lunch at the Grandma restaurant, which served all kinds of enticing food whose pictures were printed on a large menu together with the English translation . Today I went for green peas and braised intestine of pig. Peas are not that different from how we would prepare them in Italy, sweet tendency. Intestine is tender, a tad on the rubbery side but not chewy. It melts well in the mouth with minimal effort.

When I was finished the waiter presented the alipay barcode to me to pay electronically which however I could not do it. I am not allowed to open an Alipay account without a Chinese identification. I will have to look more into it as I have seen Alipay used outside China. So I have to pay with cash which made me look very much XIX century. Everybody else paid with their phones. I am not sure they even take credit cards I haven't seen anybody using credit cards in China these days except perhaps at big hotels. It seems China has leapt forward from cash to electronic payments via mobile telephone, largely skipping the credit card era together.

After lunch I walked around a bit more and then made it back to my hotel just in time before the heavens opened up and a heavy downpour put an end to my explorations for the day.

17 September 2018

Suzhou to Hangzhou by fast train, tea ceremony

Rainy morning in our hotel, we decided to take advantage of the luxurious facilities, we have not used them much these days, always busy visiting. The saunas, steam room, and swimming pool were pristine and inviting. After absorbing some heat in the first two I headed for the pool. There is no one around even though the hotel is rather full.

In fact there is someone around: the lifeguard, who looked kind of bored on top of his high chair until he approached me and said something that I did not understand but then pointed to his head and it was clear he wanted me to wear a swimming cap. Most pools require that in China these days. I tried to explain in my broken Chinese that I am completely bald, and rubbed my clean cupola with both hands to drive the point home. He insisted a couple of times, pointing to a sign on the wall that made it clear it was mandatory, but I insisted even more and in the end he smiled, climbed back up his high chair, and left me alone.

In the afternoon we take a trusted didi cab to the station, but when we reach the modern building I realize I forgot Lifang's necklace in the hotel's safe, even though she had asked me twice to check the safe before check-out. Now, if I had forgotten to check, that would be bad. But I HAD checked, and still forgot the necklace, so that made me feel even worse. Leaving it behind was not an option, this was a special one I had bought her in New York.

But my wife is not someone who gives up easily. She almost got upset, but regained her cool quickly and while calling the hotel, she told me to wait and stay put with both eyes peeled on our bags while she rushed back to the hotel. She made it quite fast and found the necklace, but we now had another problem. We would have missed out train, and we had a dinner appointment with one of her former English students in Hangzhou tonight. It would have been regrettable and impolite to cancel.

No worries: on the taxi back to the station she changed our reservation to a later train, though this one would depart from another station, so we had to rush across town with the local underground, which was slightly stressful but we made it! Just before boarding we even managed to grab a bit of black pepper beef and pork belly with white rice.

The train ride was smooth, the new CHR (China High-speed Rail) trains are quiet and very fast, over 300km/h. The passengers however do not always meet expectations one has on such luxury service. Most people are either on their cell phone, or streaming videos, without earphones, or both at the same time and at high volume. Some passengers even smoke though it is strictly forbidden!

In the end we made it on time to meet our friend, who took us for a tea ceremony in an upscale teahouse by the West Lake. here is a short video. He was a soft-spoken person, a manager in a large automotive company who said little but always made a lot of sense. He quoted Confucius to us: "Is it not a pleasure to have friends visiting from afar?"

In Chinese 有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎? (yǒu péng zì yuǎnfāng lái, bú yì lè hū?)

11 September 2018

Shanghai museum and French concession

An impressive museum, I remember seeing it exactly 20 years ago and it was even more impressive then, maybe because it was new and brimming with cutting edge museum technology.

I remember being amazed by soft lights illuminating ancient calligraphy only when a motion sensor indicated a visitor was in front of the exhibit. At any other time, the display's lights were off, saving energy and, more importantly, helping to preserve the fragile paper and colors.

Lots of priceless pieces from all branches of Chinese art: bronze, painting, calligraphy, porcelain, jade and furniture. A must for any visitor to Shanghai.

Evening at the French concession. At first, it was not easy to find. We got to the general neighborhood by didi and then asked around, but no one knows even when we're walking just next to it.

Some luxury homes reveal themselves inside a gated community, security guards don't pay much attention and we can sneak in to sit down and enjoy the gardens on a bench, eating fruits, and breathing what the atmosphere must have been like a century ago when French administrators and businesspeople lived here.

We later walked around the main area of the concession, with lots of European style pubs and restaurants. Not especially French really. We found it by following the long lines of lamp posts that are reminiscent of Paris, or at least the gas lamps in Paris of 100 years ago as seen in movies.

Most locales have tables outside but almost every patron is a chain smoker so we decide to give it a pass. It's now, of course, mostly Chinese who come here for a drink and a smoke, though still, quite a few foreigners are to be seen.

We ended the evening in a modern bar with a band from the Philippines. A lady vocalist is quite talented and keeps pulling down her short black tube dress that risks revealing her most intimate parts every time she moves her hips with the music.

When she stops playing we try to get a taxis back to hotel but every time they want to overcharge us. There must be a kind of taxi cartel, the same cars keep driving around the block in the hope (certainty?) to pick up a drunk western tourist or expat and charge whatever, without turning on the meter at all. They ask us 100 Rmb (about 12 euro ) and we refuse, it's a total rip off. It's late and there are no didis available, strange...

Lifang proposes to move out a couple of blocks and magically the first taxi that we flag down welcomes with a smile and charges by the meter (25 Rmb). the driver is a fine elderly man, polite and respectful. he says he is ashamed of his colleagues who try to take advantage of foreign clients. taxi drivers stories identical pretty much the world over.