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  1. abcdefg

    A walk in the park

    We have had glorious weather recently: blue skies with daytime highs in the low 20's (low 70's Fahrenheit.) Too nice to stay inside. This morning I rode my bike over to Tanhua Temple Park 昙花寺公园 to listen to music and read my book, to let my pineal gland benefit from the strong sunlight. Entrance is not imposing, set back away from traffic and noise. (Below left.) Small parking lot accommodates visitors cars. No tour busses come here. Locals outnumber tourists. No bilingual signage; they seldom receive foreigners. As of National Day this year, (November first) the park was "adopted" by a local civic group and now has no entrance fee. People wearing red sashes or arm-bands can be seen inside repairing things and tidying up. Some seem to be doing "light" gardening. The place always has plenty of flowers. Once inside the gates, you are immediately met with colorful sample. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) Sometimes they have prepared floral exhibits and special events, but none were going on today. Sometimes in the evening they have musical performances. Today it was not at all crowded; I only saw a few people doing small-scale folk dancing and practicing Tai Chi in twos and threes. Some trees had fall-colored golden leaves. This park has several parts, widely spread out. If you wander without a set plan, you pass through open areas and shaded courtyards, see statues and carvings. It doesn't take long before you can smell burning incense. Several secluded temples dot the park. Today I just visited one. It has a large collection of luohan 罗汉。(Arhat in English; close disciples of Buddha.) Can pray in front of the various statues as well as make offerings. Incense and candles must stay outside in designated safe areas. Kunming has flowers year round, different ones at different times and in different locations. These are the famous camellias 茶花。Sometimes they are larger. Lots of people come here with their children or grandchildren. People play musical instruments and sing. I don't think amplifiers are allowed. Several reflecting pools with nearby gazebos where one can sip tea or eat a snack. I sat here a while and two middle-aged ladies who were tending a bundled up baby gave me half of a boiled sweet potato. These are a specialty in the area. They made sure I knew it had to be peeled. Here's a link to a previous visit to the same place a couple of years ago. At that time I explored it more fully and wrote a more comprehensive report: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/55348-a-minor-kunming-park-昙花寺公园/
  2. These wild mushrooms thrive when a couple of rainy days are followed by half a day or so of sun. That’s how it’s been this summer, and it has led to a bumper crop. As you probably already know, Yunnan is China’s top producer of wild mushrooms. We harvest a couple dozen varieties in the mountainous parts of the province. Lots of them are exported regionally, bringing top dollar in the fine dining restaurants of Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo. I used to just buy them at my nearby farmers market, until I was convinced by local friends to visit the mother lode late this spring. By this they meant the wholesale wild mushroom market 木水花野生菌批发市场 in an older part Guandu Quarter 官渡区。Better selection, fresher product, lower prices in return for a 20-minute ride on the subway/MTR 地铁。I have officially been converted. (Please click the photos to enlarge them.) 32 acres, hundreds of merchants, mostly small stalls, wares spread on the ground. I’ve gone every week or so for the last month and a half, concentrating on getting comfortable with only one or two varieties per trip. I also research the best ways to cook the ones I’ve bought. When you first walk into the market, people may approach with small baskets offering you “a special deal.” This man was selling a nice-looking tray of precious 松茸菌 songrong jun/pine mushrooms (matsutake) for only 100 Yuan. They would normally fetch three or four times that much, so there’s probably a catch, probably something fishy. Walk away. Once inside, the selection is nearly overwhelming: Takes a minute or two to get your bearings. On this trip I had decided to focus on 鸡枞菌 jizong jun (collybia termitomyces), Yunnan’s famous “termite mushrooms.” That meant I had to ignore these delicious 牛肝菌 (Niugan jun) a type of porcini/boletus, pictured just below. Niugan jun are delicious and I love them dearly. But they can sometimes be poisonous with varying degrees of toxicity and thus require special handling. Best not to mix them with other varieties, cook them hot and long. (Another day I’ll show you how.) First time at the market, I was surprised to see these wild bee and wasp nest 蜂巢 vendors. They extract the larvae 蜂蛹/fengyong carefully with tweezers, sort and sell them while still alive and wiggling. Local people consider them a delicacy. A night on the town has no better finish than a plate of these fried crispy and dipped in a fiery chili sauce, chased with a tall cold beer 啤酒 or an incendiary glass of 白酒 (Chinese "white lightning.") Starting to close in now on the kind I’m after, jizong jun 鸡枞菌, locally called “The King of Wild Mushrooms.” Unfortunately, it has no snappy English moniker. Have been pricing them as I walked along, getting a feel for how much the prime big ones bring, how much for smaller and less perfect ones. Have been assaying the amount of “wiggle room,” the difference between rock bottom and initial asking price. On average, medium size and medium grade can be had for about 200 Yuan per kilogram. I’ve also been making a point of talking with a sampling of experts here at “wild mushroom ground zero” getting their thoughts on how best to use them. My advance plan had been to make a hearty soup or stew in which I paired the mushrooms with half a wiry free-range chicken. Everyone has recipe tips: “Lots of garlic, but easy on the onions.” Or "be sure to include the head and the feet. They add lots of flavor." I've been urged to not mix them with any other mushrooms; to use them all alone so as to be able to appreciate their unique contributions. I listen carefully and jot things down. The seller below left is sorting songrong jun 松茸菌。Notice how carefully she handles them, only by the stem. The jizong jun 鸡枞菌 that drew my interest have long stems that look like roots and closed tops. Price goes down if the caps are open like an umbrella. Price goes down if the bottom parts have traces of black soil instead of the red earth in which this species thrives. She snapped off the woody end of one of these long-stemmed specimens. She wanted me to see and hear the way it broke cleanly like a twig; how it wasn’t mushy or soft. Fresh ones should not just bend. These jizong jun 鸡枞菌 are sometimes called “termite mushrooms” because they must grow right above a nest of large-bodied termites 大白蚁。If the termites move, the mushrooms die. Obligate symbiosis 共生。 (These 2 photos are from Baidu) It’s easy to be distracted by exotics such as these delicate beauties, below. They aren’t actually wild, they are cultivated. They sometimes show up at banquets here, thinly sliced the long way and fanned out on a plate. 竹苏野生菌/phallus indusiatus. As you might expect, vendors of dried wild mushrooms are also well represented. Sealed packages of dried wild mushrooms in the supermarket are sort of a local joke. Kunming old-timers 老昆明人 won’t touch them. But they grudgingly admit that good ones can be bought here in bulk and used in the deep of winter. You can have your mushrooms professionally packed and shipped home to Shanghai or Beijing by air freight. Domestic tourists come here and load up. It’s not too difficult to slowly stew them down into a thick, rich sauce 野生菌酱 or 野生菌油 that keeps a long time, even without refrigeration. A big dollop of it transforms a simple bowl of noodles into a memorable treat. (Noodles Baidu) Beware of mushrooms that have been misted with water to keep them looking fresh. (See the water bottle below left. Click the photo to make it bigger.) I wound up buying nearly a kilogram of this guy’s jizong jun 鸡枞菌。(Below right.) I tagged along with a retailer who was buying a whole lot to re-sell across town, benefiting from his bargaining skills. I didn't get as low a price, because I was buying a much smaller quantity. The seller's mother gave me tips on cleaning them by gently scraping with the sharp edge of a paring knife, followed by scrubbing with a toothbrush. Leaving now, passed into a second hall. This one has some fresh fruit and vegetables in addition to more mushrooms. My friends who are in the know say to avoid coming on Saturday and Sunday morning because the place is mobbed with restaurant owners laying in a supply for weekend diners. It was a little past 11 when I headed home with my trophies. Stopped off at a shiny clean snack shop 小吃店 for a bowl of 米线 mixian/rice noodles heaped with fresh mint 薄荷。Seven Yuan. One of the young cooks had just finished chopping lots of fresh vegetables for the lunch crowd. The front of this small eatery opened onto the street, while the back led directly into the market. I would imagine lots of mushroom sellers eat there at noon. Honest, humble food. No Golden Arches or McNuggets.
  3. I went to the annual Kunming Tea Industry Expo yesterday (2018 昆明国际茶产业博览会) for a look around. Snapped some photos so you could see what it was like. It was held at a large conference center 国贸 -- 昆明国际会展中心。If you know Kunming, it's not far from the old (now closed) Wujiaba Airport 巫家坝机场, off Chuncheng Road 春城路。No admission fee, but registration required. They give you a badge to wear around your neck and a program with a layout map of exhibitors and schedule of events. (You can click these photos to enlarge them.) This was mainly a conference and expo targeting people in the tea business, of which there are many in Yunnan. Kunming has evolved into a nationally-important tea hub. New tea factory equipment, processes and techniques were featured in most of one building (the expo was spread over several buildings.) Here are two mechanical "sorters" for processed tea leaves. Bright and shiny; ready to install. Lots of exhibitors, however, were showing hand-made, one-of-a-kind teaware, such as teapots 茶壶 and covered cups 盖碗。Prices were not low, but selection was very good. Much of it was from Jianshui 建水 in SE Yunnan, famous for its clay 紫陶 and for its craftsmen. Other booths showcased Yixing pottery 宜兴紫砂。 This exhibit (below) was family run, offering the pottery of a pleasant middle aged lady and her artist daughter. The husband was also there, sort of minding the store as the two ladies milled around, greeting potential customers. I talked with them a while. Many of these teapot shapes have traditional names. This one below right is one of my favorites because it looks graceful and is also nice to hold. Has tactile appeal as well as visual charm. It's called the 西施 shape (Xi Shi,) named after one of the four famous beauties of Chinese antiquity. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Beauties A lecture area had open seating, but ushers would take you in to minimize disturbance. Lectures and demonstrations, panel discussions, sometimes video presentations. I listened to one talk about the tea of a village that I'd never heard of before. They had a stand of ancient trees 古树 over a thousand years old. The rest flew over my head. And of course there was lots and lots of tea available. This time (I have visited this expo and others in prior years) I concentrated on getting to know more about some less popular teas. Spent a long time with a purveyor of Fujian white tea 白茶。He specialized in older white teas that had been compressed and carefully stored. Some were round cakes 饼茶 and others rectangular bricks 砖茶。He had some delicious tea from Fuding 福建福鼎, 2005 vintage for about ¥1,000 that I almost bought, but didn't. Restrained myself in time, but just barely. Explored a booth selling very strong Sichuan tea compressed into large shapes, mainly for export to Tibet 中茗藏茶。This is the kind of tea originally transported up the Tea/Horse Trail 茶马古道 on the backs of strong porters. Quality was not always high, and many of these are grouped together and called "border teas." But over time they have aged and become smoother, much in the way that good Pu'er tea can become great Pu'er tea 50 or 60 years down the road. As you see here, some were 90 years old. I drank several of them here, but didn't buy. "Rich, but not complex" would be my thumbnail summary. Here and there I saw tea purveyors that were featuring the tea of one or another of Yunnan's ethnic minorities. Lots of tea is grown in places with significant Yizu 彝族, Hanizu 哈尼族 and Baizu 白族 populations. (The list is actually quite a bit longer.) I was pleasantly surprised to find a large store selling aged tangerine peel 陈皮。This is a prized ingredient in Chinese Traditional Medicine TCM/中医疗法 as well as being something that can add a lot to some Chinese dishes. I invested in a small handful of this 2005 product, which is not easy to find. On request, the sales lady would brew some up as an infusion and let you taste it. The best of it is air dried, but not in full sun. That improves the flavor. Along those same lines, I stopped off at a booth selling different kinds of limited-production chrysanthemum flowers. I enjoy chrysanthemum tea, and wanted to get familiar with some of the lesser known varieties. Some flowers were large enough that one bloom alone filled a big wine glass. Each one had a subtly different taste. Did the same at another shop specializing in rose tea. They had buds sorted into degree of opening: completely closed 关的,partly opened 微开,and fully bloomed 全打开。Each had a different flavor and bouquet. Bought some of these difficult-to-find "herbals" for US friends. Broke for lunch. Vendors outside the doors had cafeteria-style plate lunches available on disposable plastic trays for ¥15 each. No selection. Just took what they had and ate it up, sitting on a metal bench. Not bad at all, but the meat was sub-prime, mostly fat. Got a chance to rest my feet, which was welcome. That's a fried egg 煎蛋 on top of the rice 米饭。Lotus root 藕片 and bitter greens 苦菜。Potato slivers 洋芋丝; pickled cabbage 泡菜 beneath the meat. Back inside, going to another building, found lots of hand-crafted Pu'er tea. Many varieties, many shapes and sizes, lots of them presented in an artistic way, not strictly utilitarian. These large Pu'er cakes, about the size of a large dinner plate (lower left), have lighter leaves arranged in such a way as to spell out a few old sayings 古话。 Lower right are two sizes of 七子饼 qizi bing. Pu'er tea is typically packaged in bamboo-wrapped stacks of seven 七 cakes 饼 each. They are often stored that way for long-term ageing, not separated until they are ready to be used. The usual size is 357 grams (those are on the right in this photo,) but smaller 200 gram cakes (on the left in this photo) are also sometimes available. A few vendors had things unrelated to tea, but I was pleased to see that they were very few. Smaller expos tend to get over-run with trinkets and knickknacks. These brightly glazed ceramic flower vases from Taiwan, and the bracelets carved from petrified wood were two exceptions to the "strictly tea and tea stuff" policy. Some of the tea for sale was so nicely packed as to nearly be undrinkable. Who could bear to tear into one of these and actually brew it up? Guess these would be good gifts for the boss. Would gain you lots of face 面子, maybe help you get promoted. These were smaller Pu'er cakes (200 grams) -- one each from every famous Yunnan tea mountain (there are 8 major ones and several minor ones that tea people here generally know.) They thus present kind of a "Yunnan Pu'er tea tour." Each tea cake wrapper had the place of origin marked on a Yunnan map and the display boxes were hinged in such a way that they could fold together. Very impressive to me. I didn't ask the price and it was high enough to not be openly displayed. I didn't think I could top that no matter how long I walked around. Furthermore, by now I was carrying several packages. Called it a day and took the #62 bus back home. Summary snapshot of my "loot." Christmas shopping just about done. Some herb tea and some bamboo boxes. A good day's work, interesting as well as fun.
  4. abcdefg

    Burning some incense 烧佛香

    Two old friends are having serious surgery within the next week to ten days. They asked me to burn some incense for them, hoping that it might help tilt the odds towards a good outcome. They're not very religious and neither am I, but we figured it couldn't hurt. We are in the middle of rainy season here in Kunming, but this afternoon a few hours of unscheduled sunshine allowed me to ride my bike over to Tanhua Temple 昙花寺, where I did what I could. Snapshots from the visit. (You can click the photos to enlarge them.) Entry and exterior courtyard. Interior courtyard and pavilion of disciples/arhats (luohan = 罗汉.) Central square for burning candles and incense. You can't have fires elsewhere because of safety concerns. This is a popular place to ask for divine help with medical problems. Met two families who had one member each in hospital pajamas with a plastic ID tag on one wrist, burning incense just like I was. Three small devotional halls let you kowtow and kneel before Buddhas. Chants are playing through the sound system. After finishing my business, took another way out, passing through different parts of the grounds. A large park is adjacent, but I didn't go there today. Sat a while on a shady bench overlooking a pagoda set in a small lake. Last snapshot, below right, is the exit. This temple and grounds are set in a somewhat rundown residential area, well off the tourist trail. Admission 5 Yuan, less than a dollar. Peaceful place; one of my favorites; been there several times before.
  5. I saw a splendid Tibetan Thangka 唐卡 exhibit a couple days ago when it stopped in Kunming. It had over a hundred paintings and occupied most of the first floor at Kunming's City Museum 昆明市博物馆。As you may know, this is a Tibetan Buddhist art form that originated thousands of years ago as devotional aids. Many are Mandalas and contain figures from Tibetan Buddhist iconography. Some made their way to China via the Silk Road 丝绸之路, and a collection exists in the Mogao Caves 莫高窟 of Dunhuang 敦煌 (Gansu.) Some are painted on canvas, others on silk. Often they have a fabric background with wooden dowels at the top and bottom. Quite a few of the ones on display here were simply hung on a wall, though others were framed and behind glass. Every quadrant contained imaginative figures painted in bold colors. The paint must be mixed shortly before use. The figures are usually outlined first and then "colored in." They take months to complete. Several artists often collaborate on one work. Many tell a story that is related to Buddhists scriptures. Here's a look: (Click the photos to enlarge them.) If you want to see more of these and learn more about them, you can join a WeChat shared-interest group by scanning the QR code 扫数码 from one of the information tags displayed beside the paintings. Here is the link (in Chinese:) And a couple of references that you might find helpful (in English:) 1. https://www.christies.com/features/Collecting-guide-Teachings-of-the-thangka-7077-1.aspx 2. http://www.buddhanet.net/thangkas.htm
  6. Here's the backstory to yesterday's recipe. (Link, in case you missed it: https://www.chinese-forums.com/forums/topic/56622-spicy-green-peppers-and-mushrooms-香菇炒青椒/?tab=comments#comment-438182 ) Let me give you a look at my trip to the outdoor market for the ingredients. It's a look at my neighborhood wet market in early summer. It's also a daily-life taste of the non-tourist China. (As usual, you can click the photos to enlarge them.) It was clear that lots of people had the same idea at the same time because it was hard to find a place to park my bike outside the gate. As previously mentioned, rainy season has arrived, and we all rush out to do errands when we get a blue-sky sunny day. We have begun to see some wild mushrooms for sale, though not the abundance that will be here in a month. As business is slow, the vendor even has time to puff his Yunnan water pipe, lower right. Instead of buying wild ones today, I headed for the large table where they sell an assortment of cultivated mushrooms. The boss was having a reflective moment, contemplating the meaning of life. Next door, I bought a pile of dragon fruit 火龙果. They were being sold by the pile 一堆 instead of by weight. You couldn't sort through them, but my pile had 4 fruits for 10 Yuan, so I wasn't about to complain. These had been brought up from Vietnam. One of the glories of this market is the large assortment of fermented condiments, pickled vegetables and vibrant Yunnan spices. Look at the lovely long red pickled peppers in the photo lower right. They are not as hot as they look and make a great accompaniment to a roast chicken. Today I bought a chunk of lufu 油卤腐, a specialty of nearby Yuxi 玉溪。It's a rather strange salty and spicy fermented product, made from hairy tofu 毛豆腐 pickled in chilies and oil for several months. It's pungent and sort of stinky; reminiscent of Limburger cheese, great spread onto a fresh steamed bun baozi 包子。 Even better when spread on one of these steamed braided buns hua juan 花卷。Doubt it will ever be a hit with Joe Sixpack back in Texas. Here's the source of the peppers in yesterday's meal. They are abundant just now. I bought the green ones 青椒 or 青辣尖椒, but red ones are available too. They are moderately piquant, and sometimes I prefer small red bell peppers instead. Yunnan people love their peppers and one can find a couple dozen different kinds. I stopped to say hello to Mr. Gao, purveyor of edible flowers. I sometimes cook the large yellow ones, but never got around to making the photos to show you. They are very tasty, but require some extra work. Today he had a basket of perfect jumbo figs, bottom left corner of his display. I bought a few one day early last week; an experience to be long treasured; goodness they were sweet. One fills you up and makes the sun shine even at night. A few meters away, a cluster of people looked over the lettuce and cabbage. It was a popular spot: prices were low and quality was high. It was early in the day, and the place I usually buy roast duck was just gearing up for round two. They hang the birds to air dry for a while before rubbing them inside and out with spices. Then they put them into sealed clay ovens to roast slow. This produces the famous Yilaing roast duck 宜良烤鸭 for which this region is famous. It rivals those from Beijing. They are prized for their tender meat and their crispy skin 脆皮。 Next door someone was selling roast duck by the kilo. They were cheaper because they were prepared somewhere off premises. Competition was stiff and they had a bowl of free samples that you could spear with a toothpick. This middle-aged couple lingered there a long time, sampling steadily as if trying to make up their minds. They didn't fool me and they probably didn't fool the duck seller; eventually they moved on without making a purchase. At the bottom of the frame, lower right, notice the big metal pan of spicy Yunnan chicken feet. They are not for the faint of heart. By now it was time for a bowl of one of my favorite local specialties, silky tofu "flowers" on rice noodles with a pungent pickled vegetable sauce 豆花米线。Mine had a sprinkling of ground meat, although they make a meatless version as well. 7 Yuan for a medium serving. The boss was bouncing a baby on his knee. I asked if it was his grandson. "No, he is my neighbor's.” 他是隔壁的。In a couple minutes the mother came over from the stall next door to reclaim her happy little boy. On the way out with my trophies, I passed some zongzi 粽子 booths just getting cranked up. Dragon Boat festival 端午节 is on the horizon and will be here in less than two weeks. Zongzi made with Yunnan ham 云南宣威火腿 are very popular here. Made my way back to the street, passing some free lancers selling small items they had carried in by hand. Outside the market proper there are always several small mobile vendors selling just a few items. Doubt they are really making a living; more likely just supplementing their slim pensions. The old man had brought in some small dried fishes, carried in two baskets on either end of a bamboo shoulder pole 扛。 When people back home ask me about the "Real China," I never know quite what to say, then I think about places like this. Ten minutes by bicycle from my apartment.
  7. When I'm out and about I always engage in some degree of "environment mining" to review practical, daily-life (written) vocabulary by simply looking at signs. Often find simple things I'd forgotten or didn't know. Yesterday I rode the subway/MTR/地铁 here in Kunming and took some phone snapshots to show you one easy way to re-enforce or expand your vocabulary at a beginner or intermediate level. The context helps understanding and makes things "stick" better. I do this this with many activities and in many places. For example, I nearly always do this with restaurant menus while I'm waiting for my food to arrive. Also, if possible, I take a copy home to deconstruct and study at my leisure, looking up terms I don't understand. Usually I make flashcards of interesting terms to review. Here's a look at some "Riding the metro" vocabulary from yesterday's trip. Words to know: (click the "reveal hidden contents" button after you have tried to read the picture of the actual sign.) Words to know: 乘车。(The English translation isn't literal, as is often the case.) Words to know: Words to know: Words to know: (Some less common words from the 公安局。) Words to know: Words to know: Didn't photograph the ticket vending machines or the security checkpoints. You could add those when you next explore the subway where you live. Every outing can be a learning experience with a very small investment of time and effort.
  8. December is here and a bright sunny day is a gift not to be wasted. Rode out a couple days ago to Kunming's Daguan Park 大观公园, which is built on a branch of Lake Dian 滇池 in the west edge of the city. This park is famed for a long rhyming couplet engraved on the doorposts of a three-story pavilion where the Kangxi Emperor 康熙 used to visit to enjoy the "grand view" 大观 of West Hills 西山 mountains as seen over the water. The poem is still there, but most visitors today find it underwhelming. Instead the main draw is the willows, the lotus flowers in season, and the blue water. It's a traditional gathering place for men of letters and is supposed to be good place to compose a poem. Being there put me in a pensive frame of mind. The main buildings were erected in the 1600's, but most were partially destroyed and rebuilt in the 1800's. Currently the main seasonal draw is the Siberian seagulls which migrate here to spend most of the winter. They aren't exactly tame, but you can feed them pieces of stale bread if you're bold. You can also chase them and laugh if you're six years old. I found a cluster of elderly men playing Chinese chess 象棋 xiang qi. In China, chess is a group sport, with very active participation by kibitzers. I met a family blowing soap bubbles for their child in the shadow of one of the pavilions. I followed the sound of instrumental music and discovered some people playing at the edge of the water. The sound seemed to attract seagulls, which perched on the roof for a while. I walked in a leisurely loop for a couple hours, with two stops along the way to read my book. Pretty sure the park is now being promoted by the tourism authorities. Didn't find any significant crowds, though I did see one tour group being led by a guide. Also saw preparations in progress for some kind of a trade show set to take place in a few days. An amusement park is connected at one end of the park. I've visited that before with friends to ride the Ferris Wheel, but this time I was solo and gave it a miss. This park has had more economic development than some, and now even sports a brand new McDonalds's, which looked like it would be opening soon. I exited to find a bus loading a couple dozen orderly Korean tourists. This park is less obscure and hidden away than some I visit, but is still a good place to enjoy the winter sun. Admission was 26 Yuan. In February they usually have a colorful display of tulips. In summer the star performer is lotus; in October it's chrysanthemum season. I took local bus number 100 back to the 梁家河车场 stop on line 3 of the metro, ready to return to my labors.
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    A dip in the hot springs 泡温泉

    Yunnan is blessed with lots of geothermal activity which is frequently harnessed as hot springs for recreation and bathing. Until you have lived here a while, it's difficult to grasp the role these glorious places play in day to day life. Consider for a minute that most ordinary older homes here use solar hot water 太阳能热水 which goes AWOL if the weather is cold and rainy. And consider also the design priorities of ordinary older homes that allocate the bathing area to a shower head rigged in a couple square feet above the traditional squat toilet 凳子厕所。These factors don't make for a luxurious bathing experience; they don't make you want to linger and sing Puccini arias. So every now and then, particularly when the weather is foul and you crave a good soak and a good scrub, you go to one of the hot spring bath houses 洗浴 where your extravagant needs can be met. I caved in last weekend; let me take you along since this is something that might not be in a textbook. These places are scattered all over Kunming, with varying degrees of simplicity and luxury. I went to one that was middle of the road where I feel comfortable and pretty well know the program. The facilities and service are both up to snuff, without the tab being exorbitant. I typically go in mid-morning, have lunch and lounge around most of the afternoon. The price of admission actually provides you a full 24 hours, and some of my friends avail themselves of that benefit. At the front desk you may be asked to show ID; seems to change from time to time. You surrender your shoes and are given sandals and a numbered wrist band. Upstairs into the men's changing area, where an attendant uses his key plus yours to open a big clothing locker. You deposit your belongings with the exception of your mobile phone and move into the bathing area. Women do something similar on their own side, in separate facilities. An attendant shows you to a shower stall and adjusts the water. Some places have a sign on the wall telling how deep the water source is and its temperature down at the mouth of the spring. I've even occasionally seen itemized trace mineral composition. A selection of shampoos and body wash is provided. You scrub to your heart's content, not worrying in the least about wasting water. When thoroughly clean, you transfer to one of the nearby soaking pools. The main pools are usually 40 degrees (Celsius) with smaller pools being a little cooler and a little hotter than that. A uniformed guy brings you a paper cup of cool or warm water to sip. You soak and stretch, watch TV, chat. (No scrubbing here; this pool is very clean.) After 15 or 20 minutes I take a plunge in a small ice pool to keep my core temperature in check. Then continue with serious stretching calisthenics, almost yoga-like, enjoying the chance to really limber up in the heat. After a half hour or so, I exit and shower again, then go to get scrubbed. This is euphemistically called 擦背, but the attendant scrubs you all over with a coarse cloth while you lie on a plastic-topped table. Here, as in the rest of it, your modesty must be checked at the door. These guys have a number of tricks up their sleeves in addition to the basic body scrub, which costs 25 or 30 Yuan as a rule. Their favorite, for a few coins extra, is to scrub you with a combination of coarse salt and essential flower oil, Yunnan being home to tons of fresh flowers. This is referred to as 推盐推油。The whole process exfoliates dead skin and does deep moisturizing. It ends with him laying a wet towel on your back, then slapping and pounding you to a drummer's complex rhythm, all up and down your posterior parts from your neck to your butt. Known as 敲敲背。Needs to be loud to be right. Drawers pictured left are for your phone. Your wrist band has a key that locks and unlocks one of these small drawers. Freshly slathered with oil and salt, pounded and tenderized like a veal cutlet, you are now sent on your way to one of the steam rooms to let the nutrients soak in fully. You sit on a bench in a cloud of steam and rub the salt and oil further into your pores, just using your hand. A barrel of water and a dipper are in there so you can occasionally swoosh some over your head. When you are about as hot as lava inside and out, you exit and have a cool shower, omitting the soap so the goodies are not removed from your skin. If you crave more heat, then you can graduate to the dry sauna, which is equally extreme. I usually omit that and instead have a shave and brush my teeth. Disposable supplies are provided. By now I'm relaxed, refreshed and really, really clean. Dry with small towels and stop by a special blow-dry room 吹干 to stand in front of large fans that blow warm air on you from head to toe. They are operated by a light-beam switch, turning on when needed, then shutting off. Proceed to a room where you are given disposable underpants and a shorty pajama-type uniform. These are family establishments, and it's usual to see kids enjoying the facilities along with their dads. This man is giving his young son a very early start. By now it's noon, time for lunch. Line up chow-hall cafeteria style and serve yourself. Notice lots of the people are wearing bathrobes to keep warm, because the large dining room has sections which are outdoors under a glass balcony, making them a little cool. Large variety of food is provided, good quality, constantly refilled by an attentive staff of chefs and kitchen helpers. I was there on a Saturday, and weekends are particularly busy. Found a spot at a table where a family squeezed over to let me in. The kids wanted to practice 5 or 6 words of English and pose for photos. Father afterwards apologized; saying they had never actually talked with a foreigner before. Pretty sure I was the only one in the house. Anonymity is not a reasonable expectation. They saved my seat while I got seconds and the mother suggested I be sure to try the duck webs 鸭掌, since that was a specialty they only had on weekends. Her brother told me it was snowing in Dali. Well bathed and well fed, I now headed out for a lazy afternoon's rest. Passed one of several children's play areas, on my way to the resting hall 休息厅, which was filled with reclining chairs. You could sit and watch an individual TV with earphones, or you could lie down, cover with a quilt and snooze. Waiters and waitresses circulate, offering beverages and fruit. You can have a glass of freshly made premium Yunnan tea. Most places offer four or five kinds, including ripe 熟 and raw 生 Pu'er 普洱茶。I had a tall glass of their excellent red tea 红茶, which as you know, aids digestion 养胃。Read my book a few minutes, and drifted off into a light nap. There are tricks to selecting a resting hall, and I try to pick one which is non-smoking. Also, some are more "social" than others, with people chatting and playing cards. One can order a chair-side massage, the most popular selection being a foot massage. Lasts 45 minutes or an hour and includes neck, shoulders and back. Finish up lying face down with the therapist waking on you with bare feet. Costs 50 Yuan or so. Some special resting halls have warmed marble floors, and you lie directly on them Korean style. And here's a very considerate one that I'll let you guess about. (Hint: the yellow sign says 打呼专区。) You can have your ears cleaned or indulge in an impressive array of TCM treatments, including scraping 刮痧 and cupping 拔火罐。Pedicures are also popular. Some of these treatments are done in private rooms on another floor. This is the zone where erotic massage used to be offered in the bad old days before Chairman Xi's never-ending morality crusade 严打。It's all plain vanilla now. After a couple or three more hours of laziness, I decided to wander on home. Dressed, paid my tab, reclaimed my shoes. My six hours cost a little over 200 Yuan, including a back scrub and a foot massage. Now I don't care if it stays cold and nasty all week; my body and soul are revived and well fortified.
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    Kunming's fall colors

    Kunming is best known for its flowering trees that begin blooming very early in spring, often defying light night frost to do so. But last week I found a fine blaze or two of fall color in another of Kunming's minor parks, this one called Lotus Pool Park 莲花池公园。It's easy to get to and free, virtually undiscovered by tourists, although enjoyed with great regularity by locals. I entered by a back way, having ridden the number 29 Bus, and the first thing I saw inside the gate was an elderly man practicing water calligraphy 水书法 on the slate paving stones of the open courtyard. I watched from a respectful distance and snapped a couple of discrete photos. The gentleman looked up and saw me, took off his hat and walked over. Was I going to be chewed out and reprimanded for invading his solitary space? Had I broken some unwritten rule? Rather gruffly he asked, "Can you read it?" I smiled and took a stab at doing so. The writing was very clear and precise, not really difficult to follow. I stumbled over one or two words, and he gave me appropriate prompts. He moved very close now, face to face, took off his dark sunglasses and hit me with the crucial follow up question, "But can you understand it? Do you know what it means?" Well, I floundered for 10 or 15 seconds before confessing my ignorance. "Do you remember when Liu Bei 刘备 met with Zhuge Liang 诸葛亮 before the founding of Shu Han 蜀汉 and they swore to...." Well, he was off on a rapid reprise of the history of the Three Kingdoms that was well over my head, though I did catch a reference to the evil Cao Cao 曹操 from the north, to which I nodded vigorously. What he had inscribed on the ground with his wet pen, had to do with these matters. He walked me up and down the two columns of rapidly disappearing characters, pointing with emphasis to some of them, wanting me to repeat those key terms out loud, perhaps so I would remember them better. Eventually, I told him I had to meet some other friends deeper inside. Thanked him, he wanted to shake hands, which I found a little unusual. Had I just become his disciple 徒弟? It's always a treat to meet a genuine enthusiast; someone who cares strongly about any given subject, and I had just unwittingly managed to do that. Good start to the day. The park is not so densely forested as to prevent glimpses of tall building nearby, easily seen through the coloring foliage. Night-time temperatures so far have not been below freezing, so the color change of the leaves has been subtle in most species. Parts of the park are high on a hill, while other surround a quiet lake. It is dotted throughout with small and medium sized gazebos where people gather to chat, sing, play music, drink tea and just enjoy being outside with nature. I was there on a weekday, so the park was not crowded. Games were available for kids. Here a stand sold plaster of Paris molds which children could paint wildly, expressing their creativity after first putting on a disposable artist's smock. Some people did slow solo Tai Chi 太极拳, like this gentleman, which to me looked more like a moving meditation than an actual exercise workout. Soon I found a bridge that crossed a stream which fed into the lake. Small footbridges like this are always a feature of Chinese parks, embodying "crossing over" symbolism as well as simple functionality. Supposedly this stream, and others, were once fed by strong springs. Now they are just a trickle, but the runoff from the lake still goes into Panlong River 盘龙江, snaking through the downtown part of Kunming. Volunteers, some with red arm-bands, netted debris out of the lake. One could rent paddle boats or slow-speed electric boats by the hour. Families posed by the water, snapping memory-album photos against the backdrop of the pagoda, which rose across another arched footbridge. I met 5 middle-aged ladies fashionably dressed and out for a walk, full of giggles and laughter, jockeying for flattering selfie positions on the low steps of the pagoda. I later briefly got roped into being their group photographer. A few patient fishermen had their lines in the water, protected by large conical bamboo hats. I didn't see any "big catch" action, in fact, I didn't witness even a nibble. A concessionaire had tables set up which provided a pleasant view. He would provide cards, Chinese chess 象棋, or ma jiang tiles 麻将 for a small fee. I sat a while and sipped a tall glass of tea. One could have green tea or red for 10 Yuan with a tall thermos of hot water off to the side for free refills. Pu'er tea cost a little more, because it needed actual brewing. I sipped a very decent biluochun 碧螺春 while listening to a small group of musicians rehearsing nationalistic songs off to my right. It was approaching lunchtime and I wanted to move on. Crossed a different bridge and exited at the main gate. No bus stops were handy for any of the lines that would take me where I wanted to go, so I rented one of the public bicycles for 1 Yuan and peddled away. Another pleasant small-scale taste of Kunming beauty. Life can be good here if you let it.
  11. Kunming sometimes gets a bad rap in travel forums as not having much to see, as being a place to change trains and pass through quickly on the way to the spectacular mountains of Dali, Lijiang, and Shangri-La. Living here has given me the opportunity to explore what is actually on offer, but for whatever reason has not been broadly publicized. Yesterday I visited one of our minor parks, Tanhua Temple Park 昙花寺公园, little known to outsiders. I go there a couple times a year. Let me take you along this time. (Remember, you can click the images to enlarge them.) The entrance is tucked away on a small winding city street, with a bus stop 10 or 15 minutes away. Seems I always have to ask somebody directions, even though I'm nearly a "regular." Admission is 5 Yuan, less if you are a child or free if you happen to be a retired PLA soldier 老兵。 The park has its own stupa, a tall tower 塔, and a devotional hall with a couple of Buddhas and a score of Bodhisattvas, but the park doesn't have a particularly religious or devotional feel. It's mainly a place for people to get away from the noise of the city, sing, make music, exercise, practice tai chi, play cards, read a book and drink tea. It was built in the reign of the last Ming Emperor, 崇祯 (1628 - 1644.) Got a facelift in 1981 following an earthquake. Musicians usually play here in groups, but this man was alone. Playing a blue, mournful saxophone, accompanying a recording of mellow big-band swing music. Not at all modern. I sat and listened a while. When he took a break, I complimented him saying, "It sounds like you have practiced that a long time. Very fine song." He replied with a shy smile, "Actually 其实, I've been practicing 47 years and 3 months. I was a junior official 干部 sent on a study trip to the French Sorbonne. Fell in love with Paris. Never completely got over it." This lady was doing some sort of slow exercise-dancing. No music at all. Enjoying the sounds of the birds. People take their children and grandkids here. Plenty of old people too. Much of the park is built in the style of a Jiangnan Garden 江南花园, with buildings and winding stone paths close to pools of clear green water. I arrived after most of the exercise groups had finished, but there were still a few stragglers, such as this chap below. A group of musicians and singers were rehearsing full out nearby. The conductor kept taking them back over places that weren't quite up to snuff. I followed the sound to check them out. Here is the pagoda, 7 stories tall. You can walk inside on the first level, but cannot climb up inside because the stairs aren't safe. A group of small children were playing in the grass outside the tower, under the watchful eyes of two teachers. Lots of the places where one can sit are near lengthy inscriptions, some historical and some poetic. I struggled to read about ten minutes worth of this one, but only scratched the surface. This whole park is not designed for people in a hurry. If a park could be said to have a message, this one would probably be saying, "Slow down, breathe deeply, pay attention, enjoy your surrounds." Lots of stone bridges, lots of gazebos. Lots of round "moon-gate doors" 月亮门 and similar windows cut in stone walls. Statues and busts of distinguished people who were part of the history of Yunnan. Statesmen and teachers, looking benevolent and wise. One of the attractions of this little park is the exhibits of seasonal flowers that they mount a couple times a year. A month or so ago, chrysanthemums 菊花 were at their best, although they are fading now. Last spring I saw an exceptional display of peonies 牡丹。 The flower display area leads into the courtyard of the main temple, the entry of which has a couple dozen carved Bodhisattvas 罗汉。Inside the temple are two large Buddha images 佛像 and many small ones on the walls. One can burn incense, make donations, and pray. Near the exit, as well as at some other points inside, one catches a glimpse of modern skyscrapers not far away, on the other side of a busy elevated highway 二环路。 Tour groups don't come here and I've never seen this place crowded. Hope it stays that way. One of Kunming's secret jewels.
  12. Not only is Yuantong Temple 圆通寺 ancient, beautiful, and peaceful, it's a bargain at only 6 Yuan. In a time where many of China's tourist attractions have become inflated in price and swarmed by crowds of selfie-snapping yokels, Yuantong Temple remains blissfully small scale. It's someplace I visit a couple times every year. Let me take you along on my most recent trip, a week or so ago. Near sections of the approaching block of Yuantong Street 圆通路 are lined with shops selling incense, icons, and assorted religious paraphenalia. One almost always finds soothsayers 算命 squatting on low stools outside under the shade of the trees offering to tell your fortune for a relatively small fee. Some are dressed in special dark robes with sewn-on symbols representing half-moon, stars and streaking meteors; some wear tall peaked "wizard's hats" with a pompom or tassel. They won't allow photographs and will chase you away if you brandish a camera. Beggars with crutches are always parked near the ticket windows (below right.) They will loudly implore you to give alms. Sometimes they are unpleasantly aggressive, doing their best to be difficult to ignore. (As usual, you can click these photos to enlarge them.) But after running that gauntlet, you step across the high threshold and enter a place of peace and quiet. No music, no guides with bullhorns 喇叭, and no ads. An old man points you to a stand off to the right where you can take three free sticks of incense and two short red candles. They trust the honor system will prevent you from helping yourself to more. The layout is a little unusual in that you first must walk down to enter the temple grounds. Since such places are usually constructed on the ascendant, causing pilgrims and visitors to look upward, here you initially oversee the main gate at a downward angle. The gate itself is an eye catcher. Colorful and well maintained. The large gold inscription on the red background says... Well actually you might want to try reading it first, so I'll hide the transcription. I promised a friend who is having major surgery that I would burn some incense 烧佛香 for a good outcome. Because of breezes and dry vegetation, one must do that in safe, sandy places. One typically bows three times in each compass direction, holding the lit incense near one's head before planting it safely in the sand. One then proceeds to the main hall to kneel and make prayers to one or another of the the three large Buddha image 佛像 inside. One can walk inside the hall to silently admire the images, which include a large collection of lifelike Bodhisattvas. Photos outside are OK, but not inside the main temple hall itself. At one time a tooth of Gautama was allegedly housed here. Not sure what eventually happened to this relic, the story line is unclear. This is still an actual working temple, and as one walks around one sees friendly monks and nuns, in gray clothes with shaved heads. A little before noon on most days one can assemble in an outdoor courtyard off to the left and have a simple vegetarian 吃素 lunch for 10 Yuan. A sign on a wall sets forth the rules: No talking, no phones, and finish what is put on your plate. Second helpings of rice are allowed. The grounds are built around a small lake. Sometimes one finds goldfish. Both sides of the grounds are lined with classrooms and halls devoted to the history of the place. It was built in the late 8th and early 9th century, when Yunnan was center of the Nanzhao Kingdom 南诏, during the Tang 唐朝。People still come here to study and worship. Small groups of pilgrims come from other parts of Southeast Asia as well as from all over China, sometimes spending a week or to doing short courses under learned supervision. A notable collaboration resulted from the gift of a solid copper statue of Sakayamuni that is three and a half meters high and weighs four tons. Many Thai people come here on religious retreats and it's not uncommon to hear snatches of Thai language as one wanders the grounds. The rear of the compound rises in a steep hill. One can climb steps to the summit, but I didn't do that this time. One passes two caves which at one time were thought to house dragons. I usually stay about an hour before heading out the same way I got in. One passes a hall which is protected by the four traditional temple guardians, posted outside, one for each compass direction. Here's one of them, nearly impossible to photograph because of the protective glass case (lower left.) And then back up the steps to street level again. Once out on the street, it's only a five or six minute walk east to Yuantong Zoo, which is the best place to see cherry blossoms in early spring. Or one can take a bus for 2 Yuan to Green Lake, ten minutes west. A visit to Yuantong Temple is a very pleasant brief escape from modernity, city hustle and bustle. Something not to be missed if you are going to be in Kunming for a few days. Highly recommended and it won't bust your budget.
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