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Kindle has become the most gifted item in Amazon's history. On Christmas Day 2009, for the first time ever, customers purchased more Kindle books than physical books.

A Good Read!

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Back To The Garden

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Beijing Hutong Life these days

This is zhongzie, I usually have one or two for breakfast, with tea cooked egg or fresh local yogurt or warm fresh soy milk, sometimes some fruit, all from Beijing street stands. Inside the bamboo leaf of the zhongzie is sticky rice with some sweet stewed dates in the center. It is delicious beyond words, perfectly filling and less than 15 cents.

Beijing was the last stop on my trip through Asia, and I took these pictures knowing my time there was drawing to an end. It's exciting and poignant to be back in Beijing on my own. I lived here for 3 of the almost 4 years I lived in China, departing for the home land almost exactly 3 years ago.

I'm revisiting friends, my fonder memories, and enjoying the neighborhood I'm staying in, living a life I didn't get to have when I was here. I'm staying in a partially gentrified and almost fully restored hutong, one of the warrens of ancient stone alleyways that courses through the interior of The Emperor's City.

When I was living there they were knocking hutongs down right and left to modernize neighborhoods. (Some of them did not have indoor plumbing or proper sanitation, others had the misfortune of being in the way of high-value real estate developments.) But some of them are, thankfully, being refurbished and modernized without losing the original architecture.

My hotel is a Chinese courtyard home, a series of rooms facing courtyards connected by halls and breezeways, very comfortable, with TV and a/c in the room and wifi in the Tea House. In the hutongs around me are boutiques, galleries, cafes, restaurants, snazzy bars and more traditional side lanes where Chinese live and tend small shops. Walk outside the hutongs and there is real Chinese street life, wide, highly trafficked streets, billows of exhaust fumes, throngs of Beijingers on purposeful travel, on bicycles, awaiting busses, workers steering loaded pushcarts or working in small stores with their Beijing mojo on. Chinese work harder than any people I've ever seen. Banks, ATMs, Chinese pharmacies, China Post, and people, people everwhere. This isn't a high rise district, and hopefully won't become one.

We're near Hohai, a park on a pair of lakes that I used to love to stroll, but it's gone past it's prime somehow, it felt "used up" when I went back there to find my favorite Beijing "thinking place" Yinding Bridge.

I find no significant change in Beijing since the Olympics, except the yuan has been revalued, rendering the dollar 20% less than when I was here. Even with that China's still a phenomenal bargain if you know where to shop and eat. The people are still amazingly industrious, most everything is still open 7 days a week. Most of the people I know, Chinese and foreigner alike, are still working, but all the freelancers now have or want full time jobs and regular paychecks. The global economic downturn is always referred to in Chinese media, and always with the coda "which is America's fault." What can you say, they're right! Be that as it may, the economic downturn made the unbelievably inexpensive flights to Asia and home possible.

There's such a difference between the Bangkok Thai and the Beijing Chinese. Thai don't have the opportunity or pressure of rapid economic development and they grow up with siblings. This makes a huge difference in their outlook and interactions. Beijingers are more focused, busy. Bangkok Thais are more easygoing, humorous, fatalistic.

It's been hot in Beijing, city-hot. The breezeways in my courtyard hotel and through the hutongs help but only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun. I'm writing this relaxing and blogging in a cafe on Nan Luo Gu Xiang after a Chinese breakfast, sipping a well turned latte (you say latiah here) under a ceiling fan. Later, a pedicure and leg massage, maybe a duck dinner. It's a tough life. It's good to be back. Something I'll be doing again and again.


So at that point I was going to upload this blog but rudely discovered that blogger dot com was blocked in China! Ah, the Chinese net nanny. That's China! I'm now back in New York, popped awake at 4:30 by jet lag, seeing the morning up till my brother wakes up and we'll have a nice American breakfast. No zhongzie.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Elephant Trek, northern Thailand

Maetaman Elephant Camp, Chaiang Mai, Thailand. What a day.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Thai Mountain excursion Doi Suithep in Chiang Mei

Wat Pratat Doi Suithep is visible on the mountainside overlooking the city of Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand. At night it's golden chedi glitters in the lights, a spiritual guardian of the region.

Legend has it that a monk on a pilgrimage to the kingdom of Lanna had a dream and when he awoke, he began digging and found a relic which contained a small bit of ashes that were green. He knew he'd found ashes of Lord Buddha. He brought them to the king in Chiang Mai who realized he was supposed to build a temple to entomb the ashes. But he didn't know where to build it so he set his white elephant free to find it. The elephant climbed the mountain and walked a circle in the rain forest, pounded his trunk on the ground and died. That is where the king erected Doi Suithep and entombed the sacred ashes of Lord Buddha.

When you enter the temple there is a powerful feeling of spirit and kindness. Women must cover their arms and legs entering a temple and all must remove their shoes. You can feel ancient reverence connecting through your bare feet, moving up your body, shimmering in your heart, quieting your mind, filling you with joy and serenity. The moist beauty of the surrounding rain forest resonates.

The day I visited Doi Suithep was, by happenstance (perhaps my blessed luck) a particularly holy day. It is believed that Lord Buddha, as the Thais know him, was born, reached enlightenment and died on the fifth full moon of the year, Visakha Bucha Day. The whole weekend Thais were worshiping and performing rituals at Doi Suithep. It was a sublimely gratifying experience. When I made my offering I didn't ask for blessings, I gave thanks for them.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Starfleet in Bangkok

I'm in Bangkok, Thailand. I have friends who live here. It was mud season in Maine, the only time of year that it's not gorgeous. I jumped on a very cheap airfare and here I am after a 27 hour flight (2 stops). It's green, it's steamy, it's exotic, it's sublime. These smiling gentle Thai people, the fabulous food, the massages, the markets, the spirit houses, the sky train and river taxis intrigue and enthrall me. I've seen the golden reclining Buddha, the Temple of Dawn, even caught a glimpse of the king as his motorcade made it's way into the Grand Palace for a celebration of his 60th year on the throne. As he passed the crowd of street vendors and monks made a sighing sound. He is much beloved. This is a free country, but you'd better not insult the king.

I went to the cinema this morning to fulfill a ritual of seeing the opening show of every Star Trek movie wherever I am. (I couldn't do it for Nemesis; I was in Beijing and couldn't find a showing.) After the trailers and before the main feature the screen said: "Please pay respect of the King," and every one stood up for a short retrospective film about His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

I was sitting in the plush cinema at 10:45 AM with only a few others. Tenth row center, plenty of leg room, I had both padded armrests to myself. I drank an icy Coca Cola as I waited for the film to begin. This, I'm thinking, is really a moment. A culture break in Southeast Asia. Star Trek in Bangkok. Does life get any more special than this?

Without spoiling it, let me say that XI is the sexiest Star Trek yet (yes even more than the Insurrection bathtub scene) and would you believe Spock and Uhuru get kissy? (But Kirk hit on her first.) This is never explained or resolved, but it's certainly a one-eyebrow lifter. It's funny, full of action, maybe too much action; I didn't realize I'd been holding my breath until I exhaled. There is never a dull moment nor a wasted frame. And at the end you realize space is not the final frontier at all. This is a prequel to TOS. The origin and evolution of the characters of and relationships between the bridge crew of The Enterprise is masterfully nuanced. The way the plot insinuates the time line, the franchise can go on forever without colliding with any established groundwork.

And when the movie ended, I went out into the Bangkok day, savoring every moment.

This is a spirit house. You see one in front of almost every building complex. It is there to collect malicious spirits so they do not go into your house. There are offerings of fruit, gifts, incense and little garlands of flowers. Fresh flower garlands hang from the interior rear view mirrors of taxis, around statues of the king or of deities and on doorknobs. Fruits and flowers abound, luscious ripe tropical fruit from stands on the street or in markets. They have a dish I have come to love: sticky rice and mango. It comes with a little container of coconut milk to pour over it. "Takeaway" Thai food is an art form. You can get it any hour of the day or night.

I'm visiting friends here. They have introduced me to the money, the public transport a few local sights and then I took off on my own to see many more. I've come to appreciate the difference between North Asia, where I spent almost 4 years in China, and Southeast Asia. I will be back time and time again.

This is golden spires of the Grand Palace seen from the river taxi. So far my favorite market is between the boat pier and the palace. That day I had crispy catfish with vegetables and glass noodles over rice for lunch. And Thai iced tea to drink. I bought another puppet for my Asian puppet collection at the market and some small gifts for friends and family.

I'm going to sign off now. Tomorrow I take a weekend side trip to the mountains. Then back to Bangkok for a day and on to China for a while.

Ellen says hey
Mainer, New Yawka, Beijinger, Californian, points between. News, views and ballyhoos that piqued my interest and caused me to sigh, cry, chuckle, groan or throw something.

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