Sunday, July 26, 2009

Chinese Eclipse

We sat around a green felt table, a bit like a poker table, only it was square, and right then a spaceship-like plastic shape was sticking over the center about half a foot above the surface. I pushed a button and it smoothly sank back into place, flush with the table. As it did, four lines in the green felt about a foot long and an inch wide disappeared, and four rows of flush, shuffled ivory mah jong tiles rose magically to replace them.

It was about four in the morning. Half a dozen people were sleeping across the beds and floor of the hotel room, and I was pretty sure I could see twilight out of the window. I pushed another button to “roll” the magnetic dice in the plastic capsule and the four players around the table, one from Shanghai, one from Latvia, one from New Jersey, and I, started collecting our tiles and laying them out. It was my first game, and while I did win, it was thanks to the Colombian next to me who pointed out at least three key moves I would have otherwise missed.

The Venezuelan girl I had teamed up with as an adviser to learn the game's rules was snoring on a camping mat in front of the TV. The French-Chinese guy was watching the game keenly from the other side of the table, while my host from Italy was busy texting our friend from Australia trying to figure out whether or not he was still in the building or at the beach with the campers.

This is what happens when you're involved with couchsurfing and stay in the right city to view the biggest total solar eclipse in 500 years. People from all over the world had come for this by bus, boat, hitchhiking, or in my case, a rented 11-person van, to sneak up to four hotel rooms we had checked out closest to the best beach we could find from which to see the eclipse the next morning at 9:30. I have no realistic idea of how many people from across five continents we packed into those rooms that night, but it was a lot. I met people from Hamburg, Ningbo, and, against all odds, Seattle (though that one, after meeting me, privately admitted she was really from Spokane).

I don't know exactly why I stayed up the entire night. Lots of people went to sleep. There was just a core group of a half-dozen or so that stayed up with the fully-automatic mah jong table chatting and playing away past dawn, and finally waking everyone else up in time to meet at the lobby at 7:30.

As for the eclipse itself, we had what worked out to be just the right weather for it. It was just cloudy enough so that you could stare right at the sun with your bare eyes and watch what looked like a bite mark grow across the top until it looked more like a curved cartoon moon than the actual moon ever will.

Then it got dark. On the road I noticed that I could always tell when sunset was coming by when the birds started making noise and flying around. They started doing it then. I don't think I'd seen more than two or three birds my entire time in Shanghai up to that point, but more and more flew by us in low circles, going back to roost in a darkness that was falling just a little to fast to actually be dusk. For about five minutes, it stayed dark to cheers and flashes from hundreds of cameras. Then, it got light again, as if someone upstairs was slowly pushing the faders back on. More people cheered louder and some very confused birds flew around back to whatever they had been doing five minutes before.

That's right about when it started pouring down rain. We ran for cover, my friends and I separated from the group to pile into our van, and make our way back into Shanghai proper.

I'd changed a week's worth of plans involving three countries to see this, and it was worth it. Anyway, if I hadn't changed my mind and had hopped on the boat to Japan two weeks ago, I wouldn't have gotten to see ex-capital Nanjing, the silk road's end at the walled city of Xian, or the Shaolin Temple.

In case you live under a rock, the Shaolin Temple is probably the most famous Chinese Buddhist temple to the western world, and it's not because of Buddhism. It's because of what in China they now write as gongfu, or “hard work,” but what most of the rest of the world knows as kung fu martial arts.

I'm not a martial arts geek. I did Aikido for a year in middle school, but that's an art from Japan. I don't really know much about the history of kung fu or Shaolin in particular. It doesn't matter. Even if you don't know much about kung fu, the Shaolin temple is a little like antarctic penguins, the Sydney Opera House, or Machu Piccchu. You see it in person, and that's it. You lose it. It's just that famous and amazing. Everyone starts giggling, nobody can stop grinning like idiots, and all camera memory cards in a five-foot radius fill up within about 23 seconds. It's just that cool. And then you see the carvings. And then you see the dents in the floor from a main temple building where the monks practiced their stances. And then you see the monks themselves. And from there you start to geek out over every single detail from the traditional paintings (Shaolin paintings!), to the sleeping dog on the porch (Shaolin puppy!) to the not-so-traditional rusted basketball hoop out back (Shaolin basketball!... no, I didn't get to play basketball with the Shaolin monks, and I'm still kicking myself for not bringing a ball. If I'd only known...). I'm not saying the place itself was so amazing. It was almost as touristy as the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian, and that's saying something. Little gold-plated Buddha statues perched on top of the pay phones, if that gives you an idea. But just the idea of the place, coupled with actually being there, was enough to make it worth the journey.

One of the best parts of the trip wasn't the temple itself, but the bus trip past the surrounding area. Not so much because of the countryside-- it's all wreathed in some of the worst haze of pollution I've ever seen-- but the schools. There are huge institutes filled with young boys in tracksuits lined up in rank and file, pulling off the coolest flying kicks you've ever seen in a concrete schoolyard. This is where the art is passed down. Rumor has it that Shaq is actually in there somewhere right now, training. About five years ago, I got Yao Ming's autograph in the US. I thought it would make a good story to get Shaq's in China, but I didn't see him around (wonder what he's been doing with that basketball hoop).

Several times along my journey, young guys would grab me and ask for photos, and then practice their English. Not only is this good for me in terms of getting to know people, but also they usually have some help for me. I've even been taken out for dinner. This happened the night I left Shaolin for Xian. Our conversation was slow. My new friend and benefactor would turn to me and ask something like “You.. uh... tree pick?” I would look at him quizzically, he would repeat the phrase. I would hand him a piece of paper and pen, and he would write something more like “Train Pick.” I would stare at that for a minute or two then look up and ask “train ticket?” and he would say yes and I would say yes, I still have my train ticket. Conversation went like that for most of the evening.

When we left the restaurant after more failed efforts on my part to pay for the meal, he pointed to all the people on the sidewalk in front of the train station, huddled in groups, some sleeping on sheets of cardboard. “This,” he said “is China. Many poor because there is too many people.”

It wasn't something I'd seen much of, but I did get glimpses of it. I came to China wondering whether I was going to find a developed country or a developing one. Turns out it's both. A contraband PBS Frontline documentary I saw recently called it “China A and China B.” China A is full of shopping malls, skyscrapers, and problems like traffic jams. China is full of subsistence farming, sweatshops, and problems like starvation.

My last night in Shanghai I went out to an expat bar (seemingly almost the only kind of nightlife in Shanghai) with two Spanish guys and a Dutch girl. I fell behind to chat with the girl on the way to grab a taxi, and she asked me where in China I'd been. I rattled off my list: Hong Kong, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shaolin, and Xian. She frowned and asked me why I was so focused on cities. She told me that the better place to focus on would be the countryside-- that's where the real China lies. I can argue that I've learned a lot about the country from the places I've seen so far, but I think she might have a point. My next goal in China then is to get out of town and try to hunt out her version of the “real China”, China B.

But that's going to have to wait. I mentioned a ferry to Japan that I passed up two weeks ago? I'm writing this entry from the main passenger deck. By the time this is posted, I will have arrived in Osaka. It's time to explore the land of the rising sun.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. I was hoping you'd see that eclipse, so at least someone I knew would have. Glad to hear you did.

    Enjoy Japan!

  2. I am old enough to remember a solar eclipse (partial) when I was a child. The chickens started to go to roost. The whole thing was eerie and interesting. One could see how ancient peoples considered these events religious portents.

    Am impressed with what I presume is smog in your city pictures.

    Lv, Anonymom