The Potala Palace, Lhasa, Tibet

The Potala Palace

The Potala Palace

The Potala Palace was the political center of  Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism since it was constructed under the direction of the 5th Dalai Lama in 1645. It is built on a hill, called “Red Hill” in the center of the Lhasa valley midway between the Sera and Drepung Monasteries, and near the old city and Jokhang Temple, the spiritual center of Lhasa.

View of Lhasa from the Potala Palace

View of Lhasa from the Potala Palace

Looking the other direction at Lhasa

Looking the other direction at Lhasa

It is an immense building with walls 5 meters thick at the base and 3 meters thick at the top. It is 16 stories high and has over 1,000 rooms, 10,000 shrines, and about 200,000 statues. This was the home of the current Dalai Lama until he fled to India during an uprising in 1959. The palace is now a museum with only about 20 monks present to keep it up. In the past as many as 300-400 monks lived in the palace.

Potala Palace at dusk

Potala Palace at dusk

The Potala Palace at night

The Potala Palace at night

The palace is divided into two parts, the White Palace and the Red Palace. The White palace was devoted to secular things and was where the Dalai Lama had his quarters as well as offices, a seminary, and a printing house.

The White Palace

The White Palace

Courtyard in front of the White Palace

Courtyard in front of the White Palace

Side view of the palace

Side view of the palace

The white part of the palace

The white part of the palace

Potala Palace windows

Potala Palace windows

The Red Palace was devoted to all things spiritual and contains many different halls, chapels, libraries, and other places of worship. You can see the Red Palace in the center of the building above. I’m sure at one point in time the palace was on the outskirts of town, but now it sits right in the center of the city. There is a large boulevard that runs right in front of it and there is a large plaza-type park across the street. Most of the buildings all around in that area are Chinese and are not any different than any other Chinese city. Lhasa’s old town, the really interesting Tibetan part of the city, is about a 20-30 minute walk from the Potala Palace.

The street in front of the palace

The street in front of the palace

The number of visitors is restricted each day to prevent damage to the structure. I spent some time in Lhasa in May of 2012 and visited the Polala Palace. Visitors are only allowed in certain parts of the building. In fact, most of the halls are blocked to the public, including the former residence of the current Dalai Lama. The palace is a fascinating labyrinth of winding hallways, rooms, prayer halls, and so on. Tibetan pilgrims make up most of the visitors to the palace. They bring butter to add to the butter lamps as an offering; they also leave cash donations as well. Unfortunately, but understandably, photography was not allowed inside most areas of the palace. Of course, they wanted to sell you a very expensive book with photos of the interior.

Ladder in the Potala Palace

Ladder in the Potala Palace

Red door in the Potala Palace

Red door in the Potala Palace

Potala Palace frescoes

Potala Palace frescoes

Door handle

Door handle

Detail of another door handle

Detail of another door handle

One evening I strolled all the way around the hill where the palace stands. There are prayer wheels around most of the way and pilgrims regularly circumambulate the palace. At night the Palace is illuminated with bright lights. Behind the palace is a large park with a stage for performances. The evening I was there a Tibetan opera was being staged.

Prayer wheels around the Potala Palace

Prayer wheels around the Potala Palace

Looking up at the back of the Potala Palace at night

Looking up at the back of the Potala Palace at night

The back, side of the Potala Palace

The back, side of the Potala Palace

The whole time I was in the palace I had a strong desire to wander off and really explore the place. There were so many closed doors, blocked hallways, and entire buildings that we were not allowed to enter. I have read that it really is a spectacular building full of relics, art, scriptures, and so on. Who knows what mysteries lie behind those closed doors.

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The Streets of Guangzhou (广州 guǎngzhōu)

Shopping

Shopping & eating

Cantonese culture is close to my heart. Just out of high school I moved to Hong Kong and spent one and a half years there. Over the years I have traveled to Hong Kong and Guangzhou on several occasions. In fact, I learned Cantonese before I ever learned Mandarin. Students often ask me which language I like better. My response is, “It depends on where I am.” I much prefer Cantonese when I am in Hong Kong or the Cantonese speaking areas of Southern China. In fact, it seems that it is still a bit of a novelty for a foreigner to speak Cantonese. It reminded me of what it was like for a foreigner to speak Mandarin back in the 1980’s. Now it seems foreigners speaking Mandarin is not such a big deal.

Though I have been to Guangzhou on several occasions, before this year, my last trip there was in 1998. In late February of this year I spent a couple weeks in Guangzhou and the surrounding area on a research trip. Needless to say, much has changed and I hardly recognized the place. It took me a couple days to get into the swing of things with my Cantonese as I don’t have much opportunity to use it these days and I was definitely rusty. But after a few days I was feeling fairly comfortable. I was very fortunate in that one of my colleagues at BYU is from Guangzhou and I was able to meet her parents and spend some time with them. They showed me the city and introduced me to some excellent Cantonese restaurants. Guangzhou, along with Beijing and Shanghai, is one of China’s most important economic centers. It is also a major metropolitan city in China with major universities, a sophisticated subway system, and significant foreign investment.

The Cantonese are passionate about two things—eating and shopping, and it is evident everywhere in Guangzhou. If they are not eating, they are talking about eating, at the market shopping for ingredients, or at the least thinking about food. Cantonese cuisine is one of the four major cuisines in China with a long and rich history. Restaurants, meat and produce markets, and street vendors are everywhere and it seems the Cantonese are eating at all times of the day and late into the night.

Streetside dimsum

Streetside dimsum

Shop workers taking a lunch break.

Shop workers taking a lunch break.

Roasted meats are an important part of Cantonese cuisine.

Roasted meats are an important part of Cantonese cuisine.

Steamed bread

Steamed bread

Spicy soup

Spicy soup

Sleeping sugar cane juice vendor.

Sleeping sugar cane juice vendor.

Street-side Chinese style fast food restaurant.

Street-side Chinese style fast food restaurant.

Street food.

Street food.

Though there are now large grocery stores all over China, the Cantonese still do a fair amount of shopping in outdoor meat, poultry, and produce markets. They are similar to farmer’s markets here in the U.S. Just a couple decades ago all Chinese shopped this way. At that time most Chinese did not own refrigerators and shopped every day for produce. This habit is still practiced by many Chinese who insist on the freshest ingredients. In the past, it was not uncommon for someone to buy a live chicken, take it home, and let it strut around in the kitchen until time to prepare the meal. Live fish are also bought and either taken home alive, or prepared by the vendor on the spot. These kinds of markets are still around in China though they are a bit harder to find and the Chinese are shopping more and more in grocery stores.

Ginger

Ginger

Grapes

Dry beans

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Grapes

Fishmonger

Fishmonger

Fresh chicken

Fresh chicken

Butcher

Butcher

Dried mushroom shop

Dried mushroom shop

Huge dried mushrooms

Huge dried mushrooms

Preparing dried chrysanthemum flowers for tea

Preparing dried chrysanthemum flowers for tea

Selecting dried fungus

Selecting dried fungus

Tomato vender

Tomato vender

With Guangzhou’s proximity to Hong Kong, the Cantonese have been exposed to the West and Western goods for quite a bit longer than the rest of China. Even back in the eighties Guangzhou received some TV and radio stations from Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s fanatic attitude toward shopping rubbed off on Guangzhou. They is everything from European designer boutiques to tiny shops selling Chinese brands.

Shoppers

Shoppers

Adidas man

Adidas man

Maybelline girls

Maybelline girls

Night market

Night market

Tama Yaki

Tama Yaki

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Ornamental plant street vendor

McDonald's coupons

McDonald’s coupons anyone

Women's shoe shop

Women’s shoe shop

Colorful shoes

Colorful shoes

Boring men's shoes

Boring men’s shoes

Finally, here are a few random shots from Guangzhou.

Guangzhou street just after Chinese New Year

Guangzhou street just after Chinese New Year

Incense

Incense

Worshippers

Worshippers

Learning to ride

Learning to ride

Smile for grandpa

Smile for grandpa

Chaozhou (潮州, cháozhōu)

Chaozhou native

Chaozhou native

It is always interesting to visit a new city. In February I had the chance to spend a couple days in the Southern Guangdong city of Chaozhou, or as it is sometimes transliterated from the Cantonese pronunciation Chiuhchow (chiùhjāu) ; it is also sometimes written as Teochew. This smaller Chinese city (less than 3 million) sits along the Han River and is just 40 kilometers from the port city Shantou (Swatow) on the South China Sea. It is in the far southeastern part of Guangdong Province, quite close to Fujian. I was in Guangzhou and decided to take the 6 hour train ride out to see Chaozhou. When I was living in Hong Kong back in the early 80’s I had met many people from Chaozhou; I was also interested in Chaozhou cuisines which has a major culinary tradition, though it is usually considered a subcategory of Cantonese cuisine.

The old part of Chaozhou

The old part of Chaozhou

Many Chinese cities have two distinct parts, the old, original part, and the newer built up part. The old sections of these cities are full of character with winding alleys, vendors hawking their goods on the streets, and small restaurants and shops lining the streets. The new sections of these cities have wide streets, skyscrapers, and very little character, in my opinion. Chaozhou has a quaint feel to it. Though there is a newer section to town, most of the city seems to have retained that old China feel to it. The most interesting part of town consists of a maze of narrow alleys clustered around the Kaiyuan Temple (Buddhist). In ancient China these religious centers were the focus of any city and vendors would set up stalls and shops all around these temples. Even now in China some of the bigger outdoor markets surround Buddhist, Taoist, or Confucian Temples. The famous Fuzi Miao shopping area in Nanjing is a classic example of this. The very name of this market means “Confucius Temple.”

The pace of life seemed slower and more laid back than many other parts of China where I have spent time. Instead of large grocery stores and discount stores, there were open meat and vegetable markets. Vendors sold goods off the backs of their bicycles. Traditional hats and clothing were observed on the streets and in the markets. Three wheeled pedicabs were abundant, both for transporting people, as well as the flat bed variety for transported large goods. Restaurants were everywhere, sometimes with tables set out on the sidewalks. The people of Chaozhou take their food and eating very seriously, just like the Cantonese. Street food was everywhere and the snacks were delicious. The people were friendly, gracious, and not afraid to talk to a foreigner. The Chaozhou dialect is completely different from Mandarin or Cantonese. Since I don’t know any Chaozhou dialect I was stuck with using Mandarin, or occasionally Cantonese when I met someone from somewhere else in Guangdong Province.

I enjoyed two and half days wandering around sampling the local cuisine, strolling the narrow alleys, talking to locals, and relaxing in this rather laid back small city in China’s far south. The following photographs are my impressions of Chaozhou. Black and white seemed fitting for Chaozhou as the area I spent most of my time had that old China feel to it. It was a very nice change of pace from bigger, more hectic Chinese cities.

Informal outdoor dining

Informal outdoor dining

Waiting for a delivery job

Waiting for a delivery job

Pedicab station

Pedicab station

In no hurry

In no hurry

Scooter ladies

Scooter ladies

Shoulder pole

Shoulder pole

Shopping

Shopping

Dry goods

Dry goods

The hat

The hat

Vegetable hawker

Vegetable hawker

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Noodles

Noodles

Chess

Chess

Buying flowers

Buying flowers

Alley in the rain

Alley in the rain

Men & Women's leather shoes

Men & Women’s leather shoes

Old city wall

Old city wall

Fisherman on the Han River

Fisherman on the Han River

China’s Rising Middle Class

Starbucks, Macbook, young people.

Starbucks, Macbook, young people.

China has changed immensely in the 25+ years I have been traveling there. When I first spent time in China as a study abroad student, everyone wore green or blue Mao suits, and everyone addressed everyone else as ‘comrade.’ Private enterprise was unknown and most cities literally shut down at 8:00 pm. There was very little Western influence. It was a very different time.

I recently spent time in Guangzhou, Chaozhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guiyang, and Kunming. Everywhere I went there was ample evidence of China’s growing middle class. People have money to spend and time to play. Luxury cars are everywhere, high end Western designer boutiques abound, and Chinese tourists are all over the place. And it isn’t just high ranking officials that are enjoying these things. There is a new middle class in China comprised of ordinary folks. Granted this middles class, in most cases, come from larger urban areas. There is still a significant wealth gap between urban centers and the countryside (but that’s a topic for another post).

Here are a few things the visitor to China will see as evidence of this rising middle class.

1. Luxury cars

On these last two trips alone I saw Bentleys, Mercedes, Porches, BMWs, Ferraris, Audis, and just about every other kind of luxury car. This was in addition to the countless Toyota Camrys, Honda Accords, and Volkswagon Passats. When I was first in China in the mid 80’s private cars were practically unknown, and the bike lanes were wider than the lanes for cars. Now every city in China is congested with cars and the bike lanes get narrower and narrower every year.

Study in contrasts.

Study in contrasts.

Ferrari parked  on the sidewalk in front of a high end seafood restaurant in Guangzhou.

Ferrari parked on the sidewalk in front of a high end seafood restaurant in Guangzhou.

Bentley

Bentley

Porsche

Porsche

BMW

BMW

2. High end shopping malls

When I was a student in China my classmates and I would joke about going shopping for clothes in China. You would walk into the big state-run department store and say, “I’ll take a pair of the blue pants, the white shirt, and the belt.” Size didn’t matter because there seemed to be only one or two sizes. The belt fit the big guy pretty well, but the little skinny guy had the belt wrapped halfway around his waist again. There was not much selection and everyone dressed the same, men and women alike.

Now, every large-ish city has numerous high end shopping centers. Even the Chinese style department stores have an astonishing array of goods. But it is the Western designer boutiques that are really astonishing. And they are not just for decoration; these places are crowded with shoppers buying things. Some of the designers and other high end stores that have a noticeable presence in China include, Gucci, Zegna, Rolex, Tudor, Omega, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, and so on.

Gucci

Gucci

Dior girl

Dior girl

Cartier

Cartier

Rolex

Rolex

Omega boys

Omega boys

Shopping in Chengdu

Shopping in Chengdu

3. Western restaurants and products.

Though we would never think of McDonald’s as a hip place to hang out in the U.S., it is just that in China. Eating Western food in China tells people you have money, you’re hip, and you’re international. Young people especially like to hang out, study, and talk business at places like Starbucks and McDonalds. These Western restaurants in China are big business. In 2010 the 100th McDonalds opened . . . in Shanghai. That’s right, there are now more than 100 McDonalds restaurants in Shanghai alone. The first Starbucks in China opened in Beijing in 1999. There are now 851 Starbucks in China. Starbucks believes China will be the second largest market after the U.S.

Starbucks

Starbucks

McDonald's

McDonald’s

School kids I met at a McDonald's in Chaozhou. They said they liked to study there.

School kids I met at a McDonald’s in Chaozhou. They said they liked to study there.

 

KFC is also immensely popular

KFC is also immensely popular

iPhones and fake iPhones are everywhere, as our Apple stores.

iPhones and fake iPhones are everywhere, as our Apple stores.

4. Pets, especially dogs

In traditional China pets generally consisted of crickets and birds. Now everyone wants a dog, and there are dogs all over the place. The Chinese not only like to walk them, but they like to congregate in public squares where they can socialize and let their dogs play together. Though many people like small dogs, especially the puffy poodle types, I have also seen many large dogs including Huskies, Labs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, and so on. Having a dog for a pet is a sign of affluence in China. It says, “Hey, I can not only feed myself and my family, but I can also feed a dog and I have time to take care of it.”

Walking the dogs in Chengdu

Walking the dogs in Chengdu

Doggie playtime in Chongqing

Doggie playtime in Chongqing

Dressed up in Guangzhou. Seriously??

Dressed up in Guangzhou. Seriously??

5. Chinese tourists

In the past 10 years or so the Chinese have begun traveling. The Chinese middle class are the new tourists around the world and in China. It used to be the Japanese that you used to see all over in large groups, everyone with a large camera around their neck. Now it is the Chinese turn. They have taken to tourism in their own country in a big way. They are crowded all over the important cultural sites in China.

A quick story. Last year my son and I were on a  week long bicycle tour. We were sitting in front of a small store in the tiny ranching town of Woodruff, Utah, near the Wyoming border. We had been riding all day and still had a few miles to go to our campground. As we were sitting there two brand new Dodge minivans pulled up and a dozen or so Asians poured out. I learned they were a group of friends from Shanghai. They had flown into Las Vegas, rented the cars, and were working their way through the Utah National Parks and were on their way to Yellowstone. I was really surprised, and I think they were a little taken back seeing a middle-aged guy wearing spandex in the middle of nowhere speaking Chinese with them.

The photos below are from an ancient town about 75 km outside Chengdu.

Chinese tourists getting their feet wet.

Chinese tourists getting their feet wet.

Hip young couple from Chengdu.

Hip young couple from Chengdu.

Strolling though the ancient village.

Strolling though the ancient village.

There is lots of other evidence of a wealth China as well. We saw one area in Chongqing where there were dozens of night clubs and dance clubs. On public squares kids flew kites, rode BMX bikes, and rollerblades. It’s getting harder and harder to see the old China; not impossible, you just have to look harder.

Dance club in Chongqing

Dance club in Chongqing

Rollerblading in Guiyang

Rollerblading in Guiyang

Decoding China Now Available!

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My new book Decoding China: A Handbook for Traveling, Studying, and Living in Today’s China is now available. You can find it on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There are links on the right.

I started this book back in 2002, put it away for a few years (busy with other projects), then began writing in earnest again and updating the research in 2010. If you get a chance I would appreciate any feedback you might have. I would also appreciate it if you would o a review on Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

I have just returned from another trip to China; this time to the Southwest—Sichuan, Guizhou, and Yunnan Provinces. I’ll be posting about that and my trip two months ago to Guangdong and Taiwan.

 

Taiwan, finally!

Typical night market in Taiwan

Typical night market in Taiwan

I have been traveling to Mainland China since 1984. I spent time there as a student, have led several study abroad groups as a professor, have attended academic conferences, and so on. I’ve traveled all over the Mainland, from North to South, and East to West. I lived in Hong Kong in the early 80’s and have traveled to Macau. But in all these years, I had never been to Taiwan. I have friends and colleagues from Taiwan, and many of my students have spent time there, but I guess I never felt overly compelled to go there. Maybe I didn’t believe all the hype about how great Taiwan was. A year and a half ago my daughter moved to Taiwan. Suddenly I had a great deal more interest in Taiwan.

Earlier this month I finally made it to Taiwan. I am working on a new book on Chinese culinary culture (basically a foodie’s guide to China), and practically everyone that I talked to told me that I couldn’t possibly do a book on Chinese food without including at least a section on Taiwan, especially Taiwan’s famous snack food. So, after spending a couple weeks in Guangzhou and surrounding areas researching Cantonese food, I stopped in Taiwan for six days to check out the culinary scene. And I was not disappointed.

In addition to meeting up with some former colleagues and a friend or two, I spent most of my time eating. I know, it’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it, as the saying goes.

Here are some of my initial observations about Taiwan, mostly compared with the Mainland.

1. Taiwan is really clean, neat, and orderly. Even the traffic is well behaved and I didn’t feel like I was going to get run over. In fact, I had bus drivers actually wait for me while I crossed the road. That’s pretty rare in the Mainland.

2. Taiwan people are generally friendly, polite, and eager to chat with a foreigner. Coming from China, and a socialist attitude toward customer service (i.e. non-existent), this was really surprising to me. At one night market I sat down at a tiny table to eat some delicious 甜不辣 tiánbúlà and since it was a bit quiet, the lady running the stall sat down with me and we chatted for a half hour or so. She kept giving me more food to try, on the house.

3. Taiwan is very Westernized. I guess this was not too surprising. There are lots of foreigners in Taiwan. I saw them all over (at least in Taibei). It is evident that Taiwan is heavily influenced by Western ideas, fashion, food, etc. There is also a very noticeable Japanese influence as well.

Overall, I had a very nice time in Taiwan and will definitely be back. I originally planned on going down to Tainan to try some of the famous snack food down there, but I ran out of time. I spent time in Zhongli, Taibei, and an evening up in Danshui.

Below are just a few of the delicious dishes I sampled at some of the night markets. I spent time in the Shilin Night Market, The Shida Night Market, and the Danshui night market.

Night market 'restaurant'

Night market ‘restaurant’

魚丸湯 yǔwán tāng; Fish ball soup

魚丸湯 yǔwán tāng; Fish ball soup

蚵仔煎 ézǎi jiān; Fresh oyster omelet

蚵仔煎 ézǎi jiān; Fresh oyster omelet

甜不辣 tiánbúlà; hard to translate—it is fish paste formed into various shapes, then boiled in a broth and topped with a miso gravy.

甜不辣 tiánbúlà; transliteration of the Japanese tempura—it is fish paste formed into various shapes, then boiled in a broth and topped with a miso gravy.

This is the nice lady running the tiánbúlà place

This is the nice lady running the tiánbúlà place

筒仔米糕 tǒngzǎi mǐgāo; tube rice pudding (with pork and mushrooms)

筒仔米糕 tǒngzǎi mǐgāo; tube rice pudding (with pork and mushrooms)

肉圓 ròuyuán, but more commonly called ba wan from the Taiwanese. It is a large rice flour dumpling.

肉圓 ròuyuán, but more commonly called ba wan from the Taiwanese. It is a large rice flour dumpling.

大腸包小腸 dàcháng bāo xiǎocháng ;Small sausage wrapped in a large sausage; the big sausage, which acts as a bun is actually sticky rice in a sausage casing.

大腸包小腸 dàcháng bāo xiǎocháng ; Small sausage wrapped in a large sausage; the big sausage, which acts as a bun is actually sticky rice in a sausage casing.

滷肉飯 lǔròu fàn; fatty seasoned pork on rice

滷肉飯 lǔròu fàn; fatty seasoned pork on rice

蔥抓餅 cōngzhuā bǐng; flaky scallion pancake w/egg

蔥抓餅 cōngzhuā bǐng; flaky scallion pancake w/egg

牛肉麵 niǔròu miàn; beef noodles

牛肉麵 niǔròu miàn; beef noodles

I went to Taiwan with a list of about 40 or so things I wanted to try. In the end, after 6 days I was able to try about 22 items on my list. The food was fresh, delicious, and quick. Next time I really need to get down to Tainan as I have heard the food there is pretty amazing as well.

Dimsum Highlights

Typical dimsum menu

Typical dimsum menu

Guangzhou is a wonderful place for excellent dimsum. For nearly two weeks I was able to sample some of the best dimsum the city has to offer. Below are a few highlights in no particular order. This represents several dimsum meals.  Later I’ll do another post and discuss the world of eating dimsum in more detail.

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