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Tokyo and the Sky Tree

July 18, 2012

July 18, 2012

Back in Tokyo

Bakuro-cho, Asakusabashi, Sumidagawa, Sumida-ku, Midori-cho, Kamezawa-cho, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Tokyo Sky Tree

Seattle to Tokyo

Flew via Seattle to Tokyo, and slept an hour on a bench in the Sea-Tac airport. Started and almost finished Dazai Osamu’s novel Arrived late around 6:30PM local time. Rode the train in from Narita. The sky was fearsome bright over Narita town in the evening. Trucks rolled over a bridge and a red tower peaked over green trees before an orange sky.

Tsukemen in Asakusabashi

I slept at the Khaosan Tokyo Ninja hostel in Asakusabashi and met a guy from the Phillipines while drinking tea in the common room downstairs. I walked across the Asakusa bridge looking for the ramen place the girl at the desk recommended. I happened upon it under the rattling train and ordered tsukemen from the ticket machine ($10). I sat between two guys on lunch break and dipped the noodles a mouthful at a time. When I had eaten them all, and the pork that was roasted with a blow torch behind the counter, I filled the soup with hot water and drank some.


I walked about Bakuro-cho among little cafes and restaurants, and across the Sumida River. Next to the river was a relief of nine faces representing artists inspired by it. I passed under an overpass toward Ryogoku, and on a map was a mark for the former residence of Kobayashi Issa (a haiku poet) in Midori-cho. I didn’t find Issa’s former home, but two surveyors in blue peered into a gadget on a tripod while workers with a crane lifted a huge pipe off a barge. A highway overpass ran the whole length of the river. A little boat came in among the barges. The crane had “I will not cause an accident” (私は事故を起こしません) written on its arm. The workers guided the pipe with ropes to the artificial embankment they were building, set it down, and started cutting it with a saw. Another worker stood welding a pipe’s mouth, and the smoke plumed up toward the highway.


I walked back through Midori-cho among nondescript buildings, and then Kamezawa. Along Hokusai-dori were prints of Katsushika Hokusai’s works stuck to the lampposts, such as some of the “36 Views of Mount Fuji.” Apparently, Hokusai was born in Kamezawa. I passed kids on the street and a playground covered with kids who looked like they’d just got out of class. Across the street loomed the gray battleship-like Edo-Tokyo Museum. I walked up the wide and empty stairs and under the elephantine metal exhibition hall. The wide and flat platform looked out over Tokyo.

Edo-Tokyo Museum

I bought a ticket and took the escalator up a bright red animal organ-like tube into the belly of the elephant and walked through the museum. Inside was a reproduction of the wooden Nihonbashi from 19th century, among other things. I saw lots of exhibits about Edo, from the time that the shogun turned it from a fishing village into a military headquarters, to the time it became Tokyo after the Meiji Restoration. I learned that people who were granted an audience with the shogun were called hatamoto (旗本), or “bannermen” and were provided individual residences. Other household workers in the shogunate, called gokenin (御家人) lived in communal quarters. Around 1720, there were about 5,000 bannermen, and about 17,000 household workers. Sometimes land was provided that could be used for income, but usually salaries were paid a few times a year, in rice from the shogun’s granary.

In 1854, Commodore Perry forced the shogunate into an unequal treaty with the US, and the establishment of trade relations ended the closed door policy. In the museum were drawings from news clippings depicting the fearsome American steamships. After the Meiji Restoration, there was debate about whether to establish the national capital at Kyoto, Osaka, or Edo. A “two capital” policy was favored for a while, and thus Edo’s name was changed to Tokyo, the “Eastern Capital.”


I took the train to Kuramae. Leaving the station to change trains, I passed by Kaya-dera (榧寺), a small Pure Land temple with two concrete pillars shielding a little garden, and a squat modern-make building with attached cemetery. Inside were sumptuous golden decorations at the altar. A sign showed that Hokusai once painted Kaya-dera in a painting called something like “The High Lantern at Kaya Temple” (榧寺の高燈籠) which shows some people in a boat behind the temple.

Tokyo Sky Tree

I went on to Oshiage to see the Sky Tree. Newly opened, the Sky Tree is an impressive tower that changes from a trangle shape at the bottom to a circle at the top. It looks like an old Soviet TV tower in a way, but also a bit organic in its bend. Inside the ticketing area were 12 objets d’art representing the tower, each made of a different Japanese craft, and paired with a Japanese virtue. The crafts are listed here: (Japanese).

I walked through the “Japanese Experience Zone” (expensive mall) and took the elevator up to the Dome Garden. There, a silver dome greets the Sky Tree on one side, and the partner building on the other, whose glass reflects the Tokyo tree. Kids played on the grass by the dome, and on the other side wordless music played while people slept or lounged on wooden benches. Green plants lined the black fence, and the sky was blue with white clouds behind the Tree, and the orange sun peeked through.

Have you seen the Sky Tree? What do you think of it?



“Ramen” original speech ラーメン ― 弁論大会優勝作品

July 1, 2012

English translation below. I produced this original speech for a contest in 2012 with the help of my advisor Dr Masaki Mori. The historical speculation feels highly amateurish to me now, but it was with this speech that I won a solo trip to Japan that enabled me to produce the travelogues I’ve also included on my site.







Benron Taikai
Kieran Maynard

Among the Japanese foods enjoyed in America, ramen is especially familiar to Americans. Ramen has long been known in America as “cup noodles.” However, I was surprised to find that, in Japan, “ramen” is not only cup noodles, but takes many forms and flavors in different places and restaurants. I lived in Fukuoka, famous for “Hakata ramen.” Hakata ramen’s special characteristic is that the soup base is made with pork bones.

The name ramen is Chinese (lāmiàn), and refers to noodles that have been stretched and shaped by hand. The most general Chinese ramen is a beef ramen called Lánzhōu lāmiàn. Most restaurants that sell Lánzhōu lāmiàn are operated by Muslims and do not use pork. Also, at ramen restaurants in China the process of making noodles by hand can be seen, and the price is around 10% of ramen in Japan.

So, how did ramen cross over to Japan, and how did it transform? According to legend, wheat noodles came from China, traveled the Silk Road, and took various forms in different places. In Italy, they became pasta, and in Japan became udon. About 1,300 years ago, during China’s Tang dynasty, exchange developed between the Chinese mainland and the island of Kyushu, and Chinese people came to the northern part of the island. Starting with udon, Fukuoka is the birthplace of Chinese culture in Japan. Ramen, called “Chinese soba” and sold in Chinatowns, became commonplace in Japan during the early 20th century as ramen food stands became ramen specialty restaurants. However, Hakata ramen became famous because of the later “local ramen” craze. In the 1970s, ramen came to occupy a special place in Japanese culture as a product that expresses the characteristic of a locality.

“Sense of place,” or the character of a place, is very important. To extoll the characteristics of a place (and to attract tourists), people make up and emphasize various things, claiming, “Here the cherry blossoms are the most beautiful in the nation,” or, “Here udon is the most delicious.” The way I see it, this tendency to emphasize sense of place began after World War II, due to the fact that Japan’s cities came to look mostly the same. As residents moved to other places and buildings were destroyed and rebuilt in ferroconcrete, the things that express the characteristics of places disappeared, and thus from the latter half of the 1960s, ramen came to be used as something to give character to the towns that had become indistinguishable.

As I said in the beginning, when we say ramen in America, we usually mean the cheaply available cup noodles, but even so, there is the Hakata ramen restaurant Ippūdō in New York and Umaidō here in Georgia. In the future, perhaps Japanese ramen will become more widely known!

Cross-media Study of Mo Yan’s “Red Sorghum” in Film and Translation 莫言《红高粱》电影化与英译研究

June 10, 2012

I produced this research in 2012, coincidentally only months before Mo Yan won a Nobel Prize for literature. Obviously, the award sparked intensely renewed interest in his work and much has been written about this novel and its translation in the past decade. I haven’t followed the research, but I was delighted to find a paper that tackles exactly the same passages I describe below, but with a much more sophisticated analysis. I don’t know Yu Yali personally but I recommend their paper:

Yu , Yali. (2017). “A Study of Creative Treason in Red Sorghum: From the Perspective of Rewriting Theory”. Studies in Literature and Language, 15 (4), 29-37. Available from:

My own research is below.

Cross-media study of Mo Yan’s “Red Sorghum” in Film and Translation

Author: Kieran Maynard, 2012

Advisor: Dr. Karin Myhre

The name “Red Sorghum” [红高粱] may refer to any of several different works, the first of which is Mo Yan’s short story “Red Sorghum,” published to critical acclaim in 1986. The second is the film directed by Zhang Yimou that is based on two Mo Yan short stories “Red Sorghum” and “Sorghum Wine” [高粱酒], which won a Golden Bear at the 38th Berlin Film Festival in 1987. The third is any incarnation of the collection of short stories otherwise called Red Sorghum Family [红高粱家族]. In English, “Red Sorghum” refers either to the Zhang Yimou film or Howard Goldblatt’s 1993 translation of Red Sorghum Family, called Red Sorghum: A Novel of China. According to the translator’s notes, Red Sorghum Family was abridged by the People’s Liberation Army Publishing House in the 1987 edition. The “Taipei Hong-fan Book Co. 1988 Chinese edition,” published in Taiwan, restored those cuts. At Mo Yan’s request, the Hong-fan edition was the text Goldblatt translated. Today, the 1987 and 1988 editions are both out of print. Like the 1993 translation, the available editions of Red Sorghum Family (such as the 2008 Shanghai Wenyi edition) contain the five stories “Red Sorghum,” “Sorghum Wine,” “Dog Ways” [狗道], “Sorghum Funeral” [高粱殡], and “Strange Death” [奇死]. There is also an edition called Red Sorghum that contains only the first two stories, as in the film, and is sold with the DVD inside. In this paper, “the film” refers to Zhang Yimou’s 1987 film adaptation, and “the book” refers to both the 2008 Chinese and the 1993 English publications by contrast with the film. “The translation” refers to Goldblatt’s 1993 translation (based on the 1988 Hong-fan edition).

Red Sorghum in film and print

The 1987 film adaptation is based primarily on the stories “Red Sorghum” and “Sorghum Wine” but follows a different chronology than that of the book and occasionally changes the plot. The book and film are narrated by an unnamed character who is the grandson of the principal characters. The events of the two stories are not narrated in chronological order. Instead, the text shifts between two main story arcs: the lives of Yu Zhan’ao and Fenglian (the narrator’s grandfather and grandmother) in the 1920s, and the invasion of Shandong by the Japanese around 1939. Sometimes these shifts in time occur between chapters, and sometimes between or within paragraphs. In contrast, the film is narrated in chronological order, and follows the first arc from the time of Fenglian’s marriage in 1923 to the Japanese invasion in 1939. The fragmented chronology is done away with. For example, the book weaves the story in which Yu Zhan’ao kidnaps Fenglian with the scene in which Fenglian dies after being shot by the Japanese. The book narrates the two scenes (sixteen years apart in time) in alternating paragraphs. In contrast, the film presents the kidnapping as part of a continuous chronological sequence. The sequencing may have been changed to make the film easier to follow when there was much material from the book that could not be included.

While the book focuses on Yu Zhan’ao and Douguan (the narrator’s father), the film focuses on Fenglian (or Jiuer). “Red Sorghum” opens with Zhan’ao and Douguan going to ambush the Japanese, and “Sorghum Wine” ends with the pair stunned after the battle. In contrast, the film opens with Fenglian’s marriage, and ends with her death. In addition, many details of Yu Zhan’ao’s life included in the book are omitted in the film, and he is made to look more foolish. For example, in the book Yu Zhan’ao organizes Fenglian’s return after she is kidnapped by bandits and bides his time before seizing the chance to kill them in revenge, while in the film he sleeps drunk while Arhat organizes her return and afterward rushes to confront the bandits where he is nearly killed and fails to get revenge. The result of these changes is a less complex character and a greater contrast with Fenglian.

The film’s narrative is more abbreviated than that of the book. Where the book fills in the details of events in separate passages, the film omits the details. For example, the film does not explain what became of Jiuer’s husband (who was murdered by Yu Zhan’ao) or why Arhat Liu (who killed a confiscated mule) is executed by the Japanese. This abbreviated style was used perhaps due to time constraints, or perhaps to evoke the time shifts in the novel.

The book and film are alike in their vivid use of color. Even ostensibly colorless phenomena like the wind are described in terms of color. For example, a passage in “Red Sorghum” reads:

The low curtain of heaven stared darkly at the silvery faces of sorghum, over which streaks of blood-red lightning crackled, releasing ear-splitting explosions of thunder. With growing excitement, Grandma stared fearlessly at the green waves raised by the black wind.

In particular, the red color of ripe sorghum is an important motif, and the narrator is scandalized to find it replaced with green sorghum in “Strange Death”:

In the deep autumn of the eighth lunar month, under a high, magnificently clear sky, the land is covered by sorghum that forms a glittering sea of blood. If the autumn rains are heavy, the fields turn into a swampy sea, the red tips of sorghum rising above the muddy yellow water, appealing stubbornly to the blue sky above. When the sun comes out, the surface of the sea shimmers, and heaven and earth are painted with extraordinarily rich, extraordinarily majestic colors.

The film uses “extraordinarily rich” colors to reproduce this effect on the screen.

    The book and film differ in how they appeal to other senses. The book includes many references to odors, especially the xingtian qixi 腥甜气息 or ‘sickly-sweet odor’ of blood. A passage from “Red Sorghum” reads:

A dark blue substance was flowing on his cheek. Father reached out to touch it; hot and sticky, it smelled a lot like the mud of the Black Water River, but fresher. It overwhelmed the smell of peppermint and the pungent sweetness or sorghum and awakened in Father’s mind a memory that drew ever nearer: like beads, it strung together the mud of the Black Water River, the black earth beneath the sorghum, the eternally living past, and the unstoppable present. There are times when everything on earth spits of the stench of human blood.

The smell of blood and the mud from the Black Water River are a motif that is repeated throughout the book. Like the blood-red color of sorghum, the sickly-sweet smell of mud symbolizes the spirit of Northeast Gaomi Township. In “Strange Death,” the voice of a spirit orders the narrator to bathe in the Black Water River to remove “the pet-rabbit odor you brought with you from the city” and retrieve a “talisman” of “pure-red sorghum.” The film maintains the motif of blood-red color, but by nature of the medium lacks an effective way to relay olfactory sensation. Instead, the film emphasizes sound. The film opens and closes with music. The remarkably long opening scene shows Fenglian’s wedding procession. Most of the scene is filled with music and song. While the music of the procession is described in the book, the words are not recorded. In the closing scene, Douguan sings a funeral song for Jiuer. This song is found in “Sorghum Funeral.” Two other pivotal scenes feature music. The scene in which Yu Zhan’ao kidnaps Fenglian is filled with harsh music, and afterward Yu Zhan’ao sings lyrics that are also found in the book. The scene in which Arhat Liu shows Jiuer how sorghum wine is made features a song. In a scene that is not found in the book, the workers offer wine to the jiushen, or ‘Wine God,’ and sing a song about sorghum wine. In addition to color, the film emphasizes sound—especially music and lyrics—perhaps to translate Mo Yan’s lyricism into a vocabulary that can be used in film.

Changes in “Sorghum Wine” Chapters Four and Eight

A careful analysis of two chapters will illuminate several of the primary differences between the book and the film, and on occasion differences between Chinese editions and the translation. Chapters Four and Eight in “Sorghum Wine” are both part of the story arc that follows the early relationship of Yu Zhan’ao and Fenglian. Because of the fragmented chronology of the book, the chapters contain stories about Yu Zhan’ao’s life in earlier years. They are separated in the chapter sequence of the book by two chapters that describe events in chronological order and one that returns to the battlefield in 1939. In contrast, the film follows a linear chronology and eliminates all the events that occur between these chapters, thus the tavern scene taken from Chapter Four comes directly before the winemaking scene taken from Chapter Eight. In addition, the film changes the chronological position of the tavern scene. In the book, Yu Zhan’ao goes to the tavern to eat before going to kill Fenglian’s husband and has a chance encounter with a bandit. In the film, the murder of the husband is not included. The film also omits scene in which Yu Zhan’ao takes revenge on the bandit who kidnapped Fenglian, and thus uses the tavern scene to replace it.

    In the book, “Sorghum Wine” Chapter Four primarily concerns Yu Zhan’ao and describes three murders he committed early in his life. The tavern scene—in which he refuses to pay full price for a meal and encounters a bandit leader who invites him to become a bandit—illustrates the impetuousness and righteousness of Yu Zhan’ao as a young man, before he became a bandit, and makes a sharp contrast with the scene in Chapter Ten in which he schemes carefully to murder the man whose life he spared in Chapter Four. After the tavern scene is a paragraph in which the narrator explains Yu Zhan’ao’s reasons for refusing the bandit leader. Because this paragraph is missing in Goldblatt’s translation, I translate and reproduce it in full here. It reads:

He possessed the essential character of a bandit, yet maintained considerable distance from true banditry. As for why after so long he had yet to enter the “Green Wood” of outlaws, the reasons were many. In short, there were three. One, he had received the strictures of culture and morality and considered banditry and robbery contrary to feudal ethics. Regarding the local authorities he still held a considerable degree of superstition, and in traversing the “proper” channels to fight for wealth and women he had not entirely lost faith. Two, for the time being he still had not encountered the overwhelming pressure to revolt (lit. ‘be driven to [join the] Liangshan [rebels]’), could still eke out a living, and lived carefree. Three, his outlook on life was still in the tender green stage of growth, and his understanding of life and society still had not attained the degree of detachment and audacity seen in great bandits. Six days earlier, during that fierce battle—a candidate for small-time banditry—in which he beat to death a highwayman, he showed considerable grit and resourcefulness, but the fundamental motivations of that act were righteousness and pathos, and the flavor of the spirit of banditry was weak. His taking my grandmother into the depths of the sorghum field basically embodied a sort of relatively lofty love of fine women, and again the significance of banditry was not great. East Gaomi Township runs rampant with bandits, and the class composition of banditry is considerably complex. I have the high aspiration to write a big book about the bandits of East Gaomi Township and have exerted a considerable degree of effort. This is also first bringing out big talk; if it can bluff a few people, that’s fine.

In this paragraph, the narrator draws a distinction between the righteous Yu Zhan’ao of earlier years and the bandit he becomes. This paragraph may have been omitted in the edition of the book Goldblatt translated, or he may have removed it himself. In any case, the translation deemphasizes the change in Yu Zhan’ao’s character, and the film deemphasizes further by changing the context of the scene. Both the tavern scene and the calculated revenge scene are combined into a reckless revenge scene. In addition, the tavern scene of the film exaggerates the visuals. In the book Yu Zhan’ao receives a dog’s head from a butcher wearing a white pelt. In the film, he receives what looks like the head of an ox from a butcher wearing what looks like an apron of flesh or raw meat. In the translation, in what may have been an oversight by the translator, a sentence is missing. It reads, “He was ravenous, so with no concern for fine flavors he swallowed the dog’s eyes, sucked its brains, chewed its tongue, nibbled its cheek, and drank an entire bowl of wine.” Perhaps it was the translator’s intention to make the passage less graphic by omitting the sentence. In contrast, the film exaggerates the unsightly elements of the scene, perhaps for stronger visual effect.

    In “Sorghum Wine” Chapter Eight, Yu Zhan’ao comes to work at Fenglian’s winery, becomes drunk and belligerent when she won’t acknowledge him after months, helps make sorghum wine, urinates in the wine, and openly takes Fenglian as his lover. The film condenses Yu Zhan’ao’s first few months at the distillery into three days, inserts the kidnapping and tavern scenes between Zhan’ao’s drunkenness and the scene at the distillery, and elaborates on the winemaking scene by adding ritual offerings and music. The ritual offering scene—in which the distillery workers line up with bowls of sorghum wine and sing its praises in front of a dais holding the image of the Wine God—is not found in the book. In the book, Chapter Eight is followed by other chapters that continue in the same story arc, but in the film, the distillery scene precedes a considerable leap forward in time (about nine years), thus the musical scene was perhaps added to emphasize the whole distillery sequence before an abrupt change in the film’s pace.

Conclusions and candidates for further analysis

The collection of short stories that goes by the name Red Sorghum or Red Sorghum Family contains considerably more material than is included in the film, and different editions of the book may contain different stories. The English translation is based on an out of print older edition of the book and may contain additional changes made by the translator. The film makes notable changes to the chronology and plot of the story to focus on Fenglian’s character and not others, such as Yu Zhan’ao. While color plays an important part in both media, smell is emphasized in the book, and sound is emphasized in the film. Further research could analyze other passages omitted or altered significantly in translation or adaptation, such as Arhat Liu’s execution or the attack on the Japanese caravan.

Animals in Akutagawa Ryūnosuke’s “Rashōmon” 羅生門の動物

April 11, 2012

I produced this research for a course taught by Dr Masaki Mori, in April 2012. The paper was originally in Japanese and I’ve translated it here.


In the short story “Rashōmon” by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, the author uses multiple metaphorical expressions related to animals for various textual effects. Throughout the work, expressions invoking animals are used to set the background and dehumanize the two main characters. The lack of animal related metaphors in the final scene where the old woman is stripped of her clothes suggests that morality is something that can only be decided by humans.


At the beginning of the short story, most of the expressions related to animals are used to establish the background of the narrative. The narration intentionally references the name of the main thoroughfare through the city where the Rashōmon gate is located] as the “Vermilion Bird Road”; this bird (suzaku) that appears in the form of a phoenix represents the southern direction, as one of the four mythical creatures of ancient China that represent the cardinal directions. In this case, the suzaku represents the most important southern approach to the city. That the main gate has fallen into disrepair shows the dire state of the times. Furthermore, the text references crows surrounding an ornamental roof tile called a shibi, which traditionally takes the shape of a mythical creature called the shachi that has the body of a fish with the head of a tiger. Also, the text references the hour of shin, or the monkey, which is taken from the Chinese zodiac. Around the Rashōmon gate live animals like grasshoppers, foxes, raccoon dogs, and crows, and thieves are compared to foxes. The narrative thus illustrates the process of dehumanization, from the world that once flourished with the culture that produced legendary animals like the suzaku, the shachi, and the Chinese zodiac, to the current rotten state of the human realm.


The animal metaphors begin when the protagonist ascends the Rashōmon gate, with metaphors such as “curling up his body like a cat” and “creeping like a lizard” suggesting that he has entered a non-human world. Basically, he becomes something as lowly as a spider on the ceiling, and loses his humanity, becoming “like a figurine made of clay.” The old woman who resides in this inhumane world is even further dehumanized. She has arms “like the legs of a chicken” that she uses to pluck hairs “like a kid monkey plucking lice”, eyes “like a raptor”, and a voice “like the caw a crow” or “the croaking of a toad.” In her speech, she refers to snakes and fish. Compared to the legendary creatures mentioned at the outset of the story, these are all lowly animals easily dominated by humans, symbolizing the inhumane world into which the old woman has fallen.


The gist of the old woman’s story is that the dead woman doesn’t deserve humane treatment because she was a scammer while alive. However, though it was a scam, she simply swapped one animal for another. In some places people regularly eat snakes, and like culinary habits, what is considered right and wrong changes based on the circumstances. It seems the protagonist realizes this while listening to the woman’s speech, and thinks of what he can now do that he thought was impermissible, and thus he absconds with the woman’s clothes. That there are no animal metaphors in this final scene suggests that problems of justice and morality are the exclusive domain of humans. In other words, no matter how they may be compared to animals, only humans can differentiate right from wrong. Also, just as humans dominate other living things to establish their self worth, there are times where humans abandon morality. Just as the splendid Rashōmon gate went unattended and fell into disrepair after times changed, so can morality fester when the circumstances change.

Day 49 Jiayuguan [China 2011]

July 31, 2011

(I’m going to complete the June-July 2011 entries covering travel in China.)

July 14, 2011 (Thursday)

Forty-ninth day in China, one day in Jiayuguan: 嘉峪关 Jiayuguan fortress, 悬壁长城 Hanging Great Wall

We took the train from Dunhuang a few hours to Jiayuguan, back east along the Silk Road. Jiayuguan town was unremarkable. We got a cabbie to take us to three sites: Jiayuguan, the Hanging Great Wall, and the river. At Jiayuguan we paid entry and rented an audioguide. The approach to the fort wound around a small lake stuffed with reeds. We passed the brown brick walls through a gate and walked to the inner fortress, a complex of walls and towers from the Ming dynasty. We walked under the towers and climbed the walls. A wall extended from either side of the complex. Jiayuguan was once the last bastion of the Great Wall. Pass through the gate and the traveler would leave China. A clerk would paint their likeness to confirm their identity on return. Outside the wall on our visit, tourists posed for photos on camels, while inside an old woman tried to get us to watch a “mouse show”. From the wall stretched a barren field to the foot of dark mountains. Beyond rose the icy peak of 祁连山 Qilianshan, the mountain separating Gansu and Qinghai.

The cab took us to the Hanging Great Wall. The renovated wall climbs the crags outside Jiayuguan city. Qilianshan could be seen over the peaks. The town of Jiayuguan sat on a vast flatland. Smoke rose from factories in town. Farmland ran up to the wall, illustrating 長城外內, the separation of inside and outside the Great Wall. We made the short ascent to a tower and took the stairs down the rocks. The cab drove us next to a bend in the river bounded by sheer cliffs. We walked a suspension bridge over the chasm.

We ate dinner in a restaurant by the train station, and rode the sleeper back to Lanzhou.


Day 48 Dunhuang

July 30, 2011

July 13, 2011 (Wednesday)

Forty-eighth day in China, third day in Dunhuang: 莫高窟 Mogao Caves

The object of any visit to Dunhuang are the Mogao Caves, the site of Buddhism’s introduction into China, and home to thousands of grottoes decorated with delicate statuary and wall paintings. We took a cab to the caves, down a dusty road just past the train station, arrayed along a rocky cliff facing a river. A Chinese guide took us to about ten caves. The caves are locked, and the inside monitored for moisture and oxygen levels. If the level is too high, the guides are advised by headset not to take tourists inside. Though statues were stolen by European, Japanese and American “explorers”, and others–including many central Buddhas–destroyed, many remaining figures are in excellent condition. The white-faced Tang dynasty statuary was especially attractive. Two caves contained giant Buddhas, each some three stories tall. One sits straight up. The shorter one in fact appears larger, as it leans over the visitors. Patches in the leg of the seated Buddha exposed Tang-era straw filling. Each successive dynasty added dirt to the floor of the Buddha’s chamber. When the original floor was uncovered, locals joked that the Buddha grew one meter.

Off one of the more famous caves, the ceiling covered in little Buddhas, sat a tiny room, once the 藏經洞 scripture depository at Mogaoku. The room once held 58,000 Buddhist scriptures. When the Hungarian scholar Aurel Stein arrived in 1907, he got them to open the room, and bought some 15,000 scriptures in various languages to take back to England (they’re now in the British Museum). A French explorer and a Japanese followed soon after. The Louvre has many of those. Japanese collectors have returned some of the manuscripts.

We snuck into a second group and got a guide who was not really a guide, but a researcher filling in. He told us (and Joy translated) more about rooms we had already visited, and took us to a few new ones, those he liked. In one, two identical paintings faced one another, each telling the story of the same Buddhist parable. Rival painters took up the same subject. When the paintings were shown, baskets for donations were placed in front of each so visitors could vote with their wallets. The blue pigments were especially bright, having been painted with a special pigment imported from Afghanistan via the Silk Road. Images from the walls of Mogaoku are iconic representations of Chinese art.

The buses and cabs had all gone, so we caught a ride with the staff from the souvenir stalls in their bus back to Dunhuang. One staffer, a woman with two kids, showed us a place for local food on a busy street. We ate donkey meat and cold noodles.


Day 47 Yadan

July 30, 2011

July 12, 2011 (Tuesday)

Forty-seventh day in China, second day in Dunhuang: 汉长城 Han Great Wall, 玉门关 Yumenguan, 雅丹 Yadan

We ate lunch at the hostel and hopped on the 2pm bus for Yadan, a “Geopark” out in the desert on the Xinjiang-Gansu border. The bus left Dunhuang via a lonely road shooting straight into the rocky desert. Dark mountains rose in the distance. The mountain range straight ahead looked like a 臥佛 sleeping Buddha. A huge mirage, like a giant lake, arose on our left, and a small sand-twister hit the bus. We stopped at a site of Buddhist cave art, but no guides were present to unlock the caves, so we drove on to the 汉长城 Han Great Wall. In Gansu lie the furthest reaches of the Great Wall, lost in the desert. The 2000 year old wall was reduced to a few meters of earth and straw facing a stretch of green on one side. On the other, “the lone and level sands stretched far away”. We rode on to 玉门关 Yumenguan, or the “Jade Gate Pass”, through which Joy’s father told us they used to bring in jade from Xinjiang on the Silk Road. The fortress was a lone crumbling tower.

At the peak of the day’s heat we reached Yadan, billed as a “natural sculpture garden”. The vast Geopark held many many large stones abraded into fantastic shapes. One looked like the Sphinx, another like a peacock on a pedestal. A bus drove us to several of the closer sights, then we chartered a jeep with a couple from Sichuan to take us further south. A thousand rock shapes arrayed on the sand like battleships at sea. Another group recalled city streets. Our shadows strethched many times longer than our height. The jeep shot out over a lumpy path through the sand to take us up a steep hill. We climbed a huge striated rock with other travelers and watched the sun go down. Two nights in a row we watched the sun go down in a strange place on Earth. Yadan looks like the surface of the moon.

Due to the time difference between Beijing and Dunhuang, the sun sets out west around 9:30pm.

We rode the jeep back in the dark and caught our bus back to the hostel. Made it home by 2am.


Day 46 Dunhuang

July 30, 2011

July 11, 2011 (Monday)

Forty-sixth day in China, first day in Dunhuang: 敦煌 Dunhuang, 鸣沙山 Mingshashan

We arrived early in the morning at Dunhuang’s shiny new beige stone station, and bought return sleeper tickets from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou. We met a Korean traveler on his way to 乌鲁木齐 Urumqi. At the cab stand we made friends with a fellow traveler named Ye, and rode together to Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse, a hostel south of Dunhuang, near the sand dunes.

We got a private cabin in an apricot orchard. Apricots dried on tables all over the garden, and the dunes towered right behind the hostel, which comprised a four-sided courtyard. We ate lunch and headed into Dunhuang proper with our friend Ye, but found nothing to be seen. The weather was bone dry and unbearably hot. The streets were deserted. Rather than the Silk Road trading post of my foolish imagination, Dunhuang was a small town in modern Han style. A mosque in square, contemporary style sat at the city center. We stopped for milk tea at 三毛 Sanmao cafe, and were pleasantly surprised to be seated on legless benches suspended from the cieling.

We took the bus down to the colossal dunes at 鸣沙山 Mingshashan, or maybe “Singing Sand Mountain”. We saw camels climbing around the side, rented orange gaiters to cover our shoes, and walked right up the middle on a narrow path. Truly mountainous, the dune was many times taller than anything I had seen in Morocco. The smooth slopes curved gracefully. The center path was hard to climb. Only by stepping in the footprints of those climbing ahead could you avoid slipping in the sand. We reached the top and saw 月牙泉 Yueyaquan, or “Crescent Moon Lake”, and got a great photo taken at the golden hour, as the sun set over the opposite dune. By chance, we met our friend Ye, on his way down, and together watched the sun go down over the lake.

In darkness we whipped off our gaiters and shoes and–forsaking the path–walked right down the slope. The dune sloped at a gentle gradient. I jumped as far as I could. For a moment, I flew off the mountain, only to touch down in forgiving sand a few meters below.


Day 45 Lanzhou

July 30, 2011

July 10, 2011 (Sunday)

Forty-fifth day in China, first day in Lanzhou: 牛肉面 (兰州拉面) beef noodles (Lanzhou ramen), 黄河 Yellow River, night train to Dunhuang

2011年7月10日 在中國第45天, 在蘭州第2天:

We set out in search of legendary Lanzhou lamian, or “Lanzhou ramen”, sold all over China, and called niuroumian, or “beef noodles”, in Lanzhou. On the pedestrian shopping section of Zhangye Road we got Joy’s glasses fixed for free. After three shops didn’t have the needed screw, we were sent to the back of a fourth. A somber young guy produced a box full of screws, selected one with tweezers, and fixed the glasses without a word.

“How much?”

(“It’s nothing.”)

We found Gansu people, lens-fixers to cabbies, quite helpful and kind.

We walked between department stores on the pedestrian Zhangye Road, turned down an alley full of restaurants, and ate lamian at 马子禄 Mazilu. I suppose eating Mazilu in Lanzhou is like eating Ippudô in Hakata (though a bowl of ramen in Mazilu is 5 yuan, or less than 100 Japanese yen, making it easily ten times cheaper than Ippudô in Fukuoka, and twenty times cheaper than Ippudô in New York). We stood in a long line and gave our tickets to a cook at the kitchen window. Chefs stretched and smacked the dough, then tossed it into a bubbling vat. Another cook scooped the noodles into a bowl and passed it to the window, where the ticket-taker with a ladle whisked beef and chili oil. The texture of the hand-stretched noodles was superb, the beef portion small but delectable, and the soup good enough to drink.

I still felt under the weather, so we taxied to the Gansu Provincial Second People’s Hospital. A doctor listened to my symptoms, diagnosed me with a minor cold, and sent me for a blood test. They pricked my finger and gave us a chart full of percentages. The doctor prescribed a mix of Chinese and Western medicine we picked up from the dispensary, and we headed out.

We caught a cab back to Zhongshan Bridge and walked along the Yellow River, then taxied back and caught the train to Dunhuang at the station.

The dry, treeless mountains of Gansu passed outside.

We slept on the train.


Day 44 Lanzhou

July 30, 2011

July 9, 2011 (Saturday)

Forty-fourth day in China, first day in Lanzhou: food, 正宁路 Zhengning night market, 黄河 Yellow River

2011年7月9日 在中國第44天, 在蘭州第1天: 食物, 正寧路, 黃河第一橋

In the cold, rainy early afternoon, we walked up 永昌路 Yongchang Street, and at the corner of a square squeezed into a packed restaurant for a meal. We paid at the window, gave our cards to the cooks working behind glass, facing the street, and received 麻辣鸡汤粉 spicy chicken broth rice noodles, 酿皮 niangpi, 包子 baozi, and skewers of pork and squid. Bought more medicines at a pharmacy.

We set out to find the bustling street below our window, and a few minutes from the door found 正宁路 Zhengning Street, the night market. The center of the street became a shoulder-to-shoulder path between food stalls. Behind the stalls were tables, behind the tables, restaurants. Many kinds of food were on sale, like cold noodles, fruit, nuts, barbecue, grilled fish, and lamb. We drank 杏皮茶 apricot juice and ate spicy potato fries and grilled fish. At the fry stall, the cook whisked potato slices in and out of boiling oil. At the fish stall, two cooks cook clamped two fish at a time in iron tongs, and held them over the fire, swapping tongs to cook many fish at once while the customers sat on stools behind.

One of Sawaki Kôtarô’s comments on Hong Kong in 1973 stuck with me:

“In Hong Kong, every day was like a festival.” – Sawaki Kôtarô Shinya Tokkyû (1986)

We visited Lanzhou on no special occasion, and yet the nighttime energy sparked a party atmosphere. We walked down to the Yellow River and crossed Zhongshan Bridge, decked in garish lights. Two illuminated billboards for China Mobile stared each other down over the swift current. On the opposite shore were buildings in pseudo-classical Chinese style going up the mountain. We took a cab back to Zhengning Street, shouldered our way back toward the hotel, and ate hot soup boiled in an iron vat. A pipe underneath spat a stream of fire. The sweet soup mixed raisins, egg, and other dry fruits in a fermented rice porridge.

“Of course, more than four million people–on top of carrying out their daily lives–couldn’t possibly hold a festival every day. But for me, their daily life itself I could not help but feel was like a festival.” – Sawaki (1986)





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