On to Wutai

On Way to Wu Tai – Dead Stop

               Wu Tai Shan (Five Mountains) is an important Buddhist religious site west of Beijing.  It is in the mountainous northern part of the Shanxi province, about 200 miles from Beijing.  Buddhist make pilgrimages to Wu Tai in which Manjusri, the bodhisattva, think saint, of Wisdom resides.   Wu Tai Shan encompasses the Chinese appreciation of nature, the mysticism of mountains and the addition of a Buddhist realm.  About 200 miles from Beijing, a city of over 20 million, Disney couldn’t have done better to create this site.

               Although Wu Tai is quite a rural setting, there was a direct highway route from Beijing to Wu Tai taking a bit more than four hours.  Highways, outside of the cities, are fairly empty, dominated by commercial traffic.  Even on this Saturday when we left, we had quite an open road. 

No news that Beijing air quality is terrible, but even as we drove into rural areas air quality did not improve significantly.  Fortunately, after three hours it began to rain and this cleared the air.  Still, one does realize the impact of their pollution.

               An open road for me is an opportunity to press the pedal, but in China my driver observed the limit.   Could it be the regularly spaced cameras, monitoring cars, speed and probably passengers?  Too risky to challenge.  No passing lanes.  Each lane has a recommended speed range.  The far left is the fastest so no further passing lane available. 

               Then suddenly, after four hours of open highway cruising, everything stops.  No reason given, dead stop.  Miles of west bound two lane parking lots.  Waiting for about 45 minutes and then we begin to move.    Within ½ mile we see the toll gate and the boundary of the Shanxi province.  Was it lunch time break at the toll? 

               From there it was only a few miles, along a rural road to Mt. Wutai.  Rural; no shops, just an isolated building every few hundred feet.  We reach the road to Wu Tai, which in Chinese Style has a guard and controlled entrance and off to the right is a new Marriott Hotel and entertainment complex. 

               We stop for lunch and meet the local people, school principal and head of the Guides.  Imposing entrance, very large, imposing lobby, cavernous hallways, all in marble, totally empty.  Conspicuous wealth display for the newly affluent customers on religious pilgrimage.  , Chinese investment for the future, or wasted money? 

Stopped Traffice on Highway
Dead Stop on Highway

Prince Gong’s Castle-Beijing Site

               Built during the Qing Dynasty, about 1777 as the private residence of Heshan who had an extremely rapid rise up the Civil Service ladder.  He had acquired great wealth, as well as many enemies.  When the Qing Emperor Qianlong (1736 – 1796) died his successor Jiaqing (1796-1820) had Heshan executed.   The residence passed along to other hands and during the reign of Emperor Xianfeng (1851-1862) ownership was transferred to Prince Gong. 

               However, we were invited to be lead through the Castle by a fengshui scholar who was to describe the design of the space as it followed fengshui principles.  Alas, our fengshui scholar only spoke Chinese and my understanding of his discussion was limited.

               I was accompanied by three bilingual speakers, Chinese/English and none could really supply me with a comprehensive translation, since the language was specialized. 

               As described in the barest detail is that fengshui is the study of creating a space which can take advantage, or even harness the natural forces, qi, of the universe.                

               The best we have is some lovely photos and a nice walk in the lovely gardens.  

Tesla – X: Auto as Performance Art

Tesla – Profile

              In Beijing, the land of conspicuous consumerism, I was introduced to the Tesla-X.  The prominent tri-star of the M-B, Benzes if you need prompting, is understood as symbol of having made it, the thunderbird logo “T” of Tesla is rare.  The cachet of owning and displaying this auto will achieve the silent envy of those munchkins measuring.  In a nation where the gold interlocking CC’s of fake Chanel are a very weak signal of success, and the tri star of the Benz has become more common the “T” is still a rarity and not yet copied.  As a potential measure of my host’s attempt to disprove their class conscious symbol, the car was in a non-descript, KGB, black.  Suitable to prove they were not attempting a conspicuous display of wealth.  I am not convinced, but then, I tend to be a skeptic about good intentions.  Still, consider that the “X” of the name refers to excess.

               As a concept, an electric car in our age of climate change concerns has great merit.  Elon Musk deserves much credit for the bravado and energy to challenge the automobile establishment with a new vision.  I can even excuse the Tesla-X as an effective marketing tool and business model.  The “X” makes a statement.  The challenge of making a statement is that not everyone agrees.  For me, the “X” misses the point of a car, but then, fortunately for Musk, I am not the target audience of the “X”.

               I did not enter the car as an auto critic, but I am a bit of a car guy and realized after a few minutes that the drive needed some commentary.  At home, I have an SUV, a two year old Honda Pilot, the latest of decades of owning SUV’s.  The choice of SUV has always been practical; “Schlepping.” Kids, household goods, sporting gear, etc.  It was my daily driver too. 

The car I entered was wonderfully appointed.   It was clearly luxury.  Soft leather seats, as soft as a baby’s behind, as my Mom would say.  Two color upholstery, beige and black.  I didn’t notice the stiffness, some reviews do complain, but I was comfortable in the back row.  Oh yes, I didn’t get a chance to drive the car, because, as was befitting my host, they have a full time driver who had control of the keys and would not relinquish them.  Honestly, even if I were allowed, driving in Beijing is not a challenge I would accept.  Summed up succinctly, the only rule is that no one follows rules.  It is mass chaos.  Autos follow some rules, but motor scooters, bicycles and other motorized vehicles ride in all directions, even on the sidewalk. 

The “X” has a large amount of glass to help the driver see all around as scooters come at him from the front, rear and sides.  The front window rises nearly 1/3 up the roof.  Structures are designed with glass to take advantage of the sun’s heating.  Alas, in Beijing in April, not the hottest month, the car heated up from the sun, like a greenhouse.  Cooling down with a little A/C would be great, but that does limit the range, which I read is nearly 300 miles.  So we fiddled with the windows to cool the car down.  I am not sure when during the heat of the summer, the driver would put on the A/C?

The designers of the “X” did themselves well with the interior.  Some reviews complained about poor fit, which I didn’t notice.  I was overwhelmed by the gentle relaxed curves, the chrome trim and recessed handles in the interior.   In the daylight, it did take a minute to locate the door handles to exit the car. 

Smack in the middle of the dash is a display larger than my laptop.  The specs say 17 inches, but it seems bigger.  A bit contradictory to have this overwhelming display far below sightlines to distract be the driver from the road.  Yet, it is large and has bragging rights.  With all that display space, road maps are quite readable, street are separated, and if given time the driver can trace the route with his finger.  Save, attention should be on the road.  If only the passenger could tilt the screen away from the driver and play games. 

Gull Wing

Finally, and most luxurious are the rear passenger “gull wing doors.”  These are such an iconic element from an earlier 50’s MB, they deserve attention.  Save for their total impracticality.  As the attendant approached the car to open the door, our driver warned him away, since as the doors open from the bottom up, he would have been knocked off his feet.  Then when they close, sensors alert if people are near and they do not close. 

For me Tesla “X” for excessive design is not extraordinary.  For those interested in a statement rather than a practical car, the “X” may be for them.  The car specs, 0-60 in 3 seconds or so, is impressive.   For my city bound, Beijing host, there is no time during any 24 hours where they could find enough lonely road to accelerate. 

So, the next day we were off to the adjacent province, a long highway ride and a few days away from Beijing.  As they pulled up, I noticed a familiar tri-star, a MB 500 SUV.  A conventional gas powered car, with a range and capacity for long distance schlepping

The “X” designers have created the status symbol for the future.  Completing with the newly created SUV’s of the ultra, high end brands, the “X” stands as the electric, non-polluting futuristic vehicle.  With great flair for design, it is one step ahead for the conspicuous consumer who can flaunt it’s excess without care of cost. 

Unfortunately, there is the well documented virtually inextinguishable fires caused by Tesla’s lithium batteries.  Accelerated by accidents, or even igniting in a parking lot, the batteries burn so hot that the best option is to allow them to just burn themselves out.  Up in unextinguishable flames, a fitting ending to a car designed for excess.

Studying Chinese in Beijing

Margaret and Rich at Mandarin Zone School

               Stretch your body   :    Expand your mind.  It is the tag. It is my mantra.   Keep improving, physically and mentally.

               First order on arrival in China are Chinese Lessons with Margaret at Mandarin Zone, her school near the Tuanjiehu station on line 10 in Beijing.  It has been more than two years since my first lesson with her.  Now about six years of study.  What I do not have in intellect I compensate with stubbornness and determination.   Can’t say it’s been an easy process, but fortunately people like Margaret and my first teacher Xin, have stuck with me. 

               From Park Plaza Hotel it is two changes and about forty minutes to the school.  Line 5 change to line 6 at Dongsi.  Line 6 change to Line 10 at Huijialu.  Exit at Tuenjiehu.  Total cost is 3 yuan, or less than a half a dollar, US.  China has put a priority on mass transportation.  Clean trains, clean, well-lit stations, trains running very often at an available price for everyone.  Doesn’t America have the will to serve its people better?  

               Emerge at Exit B, always a critical piece of information in Beijing since there are many exits and the choosing the correct one saves crossing large streets and avoiding attack by Beijing’s crazy drivers.

               The building entrance is in the alley, not on the main street, and a bit dingy.  Two small elevators service a 17 storey building.  At busy times, lines form and it can be two or three elevator cycles before you can get on.  At 9:30 most everyone is already at work, so the line is short.

               We are on the Second Book of the Beijing Language Institute Speak Chinese.  My progress is slow since Margaret reminds me I only have one lesson a week on SKYPE and do miss some.  It is true.  My attention to Chinese when I am at home lags. 

               Margaret is wonderfully kind, accepting my progress, or lack, with poise.  Always ready with positive comments.  What is, is!  During lessons however, she tortures me.  Continual conversation and use of proper grammar.  No error is left unmentioned.  I work hard.  Start sentences and then get lost somewhere in the middle.  Try grammar concepts. Struggle to get it all straight.  Feel happy I completed the sentence and see her face.  “Bu dong,” she says.  “I don’t understand, in English, she says.  Sometimes I try again, sometimes I just give up.  Then she laughs and tells me to try again.  At the start of the lesson I usually try to tell her something that happened to me.  Work on my conversion skills.  After a five minute struggle of confused grammar she says, OK now tell me the whole story again.  Then she giggles as she knows she is torturing me.  But, it does work.

               Truly, I have achieved a valuable plateau.  Basic sentences are ingrained.  Vocabulary has expanded.  Grammar concepts are getting sorted out.  While not fluent, I have a functional level of basic conversation. 

               It is good to see her.  We speak nearly weekly via SKYPE, still the personal experience is different.   Being out and about in China also allows me to test my skills with locals.  While I still do not hear and understand the local people, they understand me.

               Four days, three hours a day in the morning.  All that I have available this trip, but she moved side some other students to make time for me. 

               So we begin.  We spend three days reviewing all of the chapters of book two, 16 to 25 in tow and a half days.  Then we begin the new stuff.  Up to Chapter 28 and “ba” sentences, the last grammar hurdle in this book.  She tells me that Book 3 focusses on conversation and all difficult grammar has been completed. 

               My confidence has improved and I am willing to speak to people, ask questions and get directions.  Yes, I am stopped by many people who are curious about this white haired person.  They wish to engage, practice their English.  I in turn practice my Chinese. 

               I do have a weakness for the children and always offer a “Hello.”  I did learn from JoAnn, see an earlier post, “The Power of Hello.”  The parents always encourage a response.  Sometime we can engage more, and others just say “Hello” or “Ni Hao.”   

               Whatever, I do try to engage.  Practice conversation and improve my ear and my speaking.

On to Beijing – 2019

               At LAX early.  Not going to duplicate yesterday’s error. 

The flight is nearly full, the nearly, fortunately, was the seat adjacent to me.    

I quickly realized the effect of the time of departure on my sleep habit on the long flight. Leaving at 6 AM or so from Boston requires early wake up. Sleeping aboard is easy.  Leaving after midnight, as I did recently to Hong Kong is a natural time to sleep.  At 10 AM departure, I am well rested and alert and not disposed to nap.  Well, lots of reading.

Flight time from LA, Dallas Fort Worth, Boston or New York to Beijing are virtually the same time.  The flight to a stop across the US, via American is wasted travel time, but the network of carriers with American and United offer better pricing for multi-stop travel and this time I am planning to return through Hong Kong.  Although Hainan offers a non-stop between Boston and Beijing, returning from Hong Kong prices this out of reason. 

AA flight 181 is on a Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner.  This plane seems to me a bit more upscale than yesterday’s Airbus.  It is serial number 40653, registration number N834AA and was delivered to American Feb 2018.   It was two years newer than the Airbus of the earlier flight, but a light year ahead in comfort and appointments.   It said it was manufactured in the Charleston SC factory, which I have recently read has had quality issues.  Fortunately, we landed safely so I cannot complain.

 A long but uneventful flight.   Arrived in Beijing on time.  Fast through immigration.  No fingerprints requested of me.  Not sure if because I have been through before.

Driver met me at the exit, no problem.  Dropped me at the hotel, Park Plaza in Wangfujing.  A convenient area.  Went for a walk to buy a SIM card and then get some funds at the bank.  Purchased 5 gigabytes and 50 minutes of time for about $80 USD. We’ll see if this was a wise purchase?

Found a Food Street and indulged.  Not sure, probably octopus tentacles.  Two barbecue sticks for 50 yuan.  Covered with sauce.  Not really high quality, but fast, interesting and cheap. Bought 5 gigabytes and 50 minutes of phone time for $80 USD. We’ll see if there was value in this purchase?

Found a Food Street and indulged.  Not sure, probably octopus tentacles.  Two barbecue sticks for 50 yuan.  Covered with sauce.  Not really high quality, but fast, interesting and cheap.

China 2019 – Once Again

               An inauspicious start.  Short form, I missed my flight.  Did I not get modern technology quite right, or do I need to slow down.

Thought I had scheduled a car pick up (Bless them, Uber) at 4:30 but no one came so scrambled and finally got a car at 5 AM.  Still time to get to the 6:24 flight, but alas, really damn, a major accident on 93 delayed me further.  At the airport check-in; less than one hour to departure they do not accept luggage.  Redirected to a later flight through LA and a connection on Saturday.  One day delay.  More on the implications of this redirect later.

               Modern technology at its best. Immediately on my cell phone contacting the hotel in Beijing that I was delayed a day and not to cancel the room and too reserve a room at LAX.

               Life full of plusses and minuses. 

Flight from Boston to LAX was on an Airbus A321S. Registration number N138AN and serial number 7009. It was delivered to American on April 1, 2016.

               Arrived at LAX fairly refreshed.  Exit into LA weather.  Warmth, a concept net yet arrived in April in Boston.  Fleece and jacket shed stored in luggage, warmth quite a relief.  Surprisingly short wait for Hilton at Airport bus and short ride to hotel. 

               Asked for a room with view of airport runway and got my wish.  Still fascinated by planes flying and coming in to land.  A few molecules of air different between top and bottom of the wing and it is absorbed upwards, more grace than birds, no flapping, seemingly effortless.  Descending, quite linearly, but then  wheels hit ground and a large puff of smoke, friction and it is a large truck screeching to a halt, brakes full on.

               Inside the tube you do not realize the brand design on the outside.  Cigarettes, cookies and airplanes have external designs and passengers, like cigarettes are packaged.  In the brief time, Qantas, how wonderfully colorful and intricate, Korean Air, less artistic but a nice blue, Alaskan Air with mages on the tail and US Carriers American and United with their logo. 

               Next morning, up early and off to LAX at 7:45 for 10 AM flight.  Not going to be late this time.

Stretch your body : Expand your mind