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To Sok Jip, Annandale, VA August 31, 2014

Posted by hslu in Food, Life, Death and Yuanfen, Shanghai, Travel.
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Yesterday was one of those days I took my wife to work in early morning and picked her up around 8 to 8:30 in the evening. A 13-hour day at work; most the time on her feet, wears out a person easily even if you have 鐵打的身子。A few times her day stretched to 14 hours because of emergency or unexpected complications. Well, I guess you call this ‘做一天和尚 撞一天鍾吧!’

We went to Annandale for dinner because I was tired of cooking and I picked ‘To Sok Jip’ out of Yelp because we haven’t been to this restaurant before. Yelp gives it four stars; not bad for a Korean  restaurant.

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We have been  to this location before but the restaurant we’ve been to only had menu in Korean and waitress didn’t speak English. It was apparent that the new owner of this 10 table restaurant is doing well because we had to wait for a table and there were 4 or 5 parties ahead of us. It was about 9 pm on a Saturday night and most guests inside  and outside of the restaurant were young students and professionals. Most of them spoke Korean. We decided to wait it out.

The two young guys in front of us were going through the menu because the owner asked them to pick out dishes they wanted to order so that she could speed up the process of service. There were two parties of four behind us: all young Korean girls. As the young guys were deciding their choices, I was almost certain that they came from Taipei: perfect 普通話;台北 style dress and hair and not even a tiny hint of someone who grew up in mainland China.

My wife had the same feelings as I did and she asked them where they were from. One came from Maryland and the other guy was from Arlington, a few miles away in Virginia. After they have decided, it was our turn to choose. We chose dolsot bibimbap and seafood pancake; our usuals. I also wanted to order Bossam because it seemed to be a favorite dish by many reviewers. Well, our down to earth female owner had one comment: too much. Apparently, she thought that two dishes were plenty for us. Well, this was kind first for us: ‘有錢還不要賺.’ Well, 恭敬不如從命 besides it gave us a good execuse to come back later.

Slowly the restaurant became less crowded. Those two young Taiwanese guys were still waiting and soon it would be our turn. The owner soon came back and I thought she’d seat the two young guys down. She instead turned to us and them and said ‘share table?’ Apparently it was pretty late and there were some people still behind us waiting to get in. The young guys said yes and we accepted the unexpected offer too.

Since we already pre-ordered, our food came quickly. Panchan showed up too along with my Korean soju. The young guys also had pancake and they had ordered a big pot of stew with toufu, vegetables and fish? in a red-colored broth.

As we finishing our meal I turned to the young guys at our table and asked them whether they liked their meal. I also wanted to know what they have ordered so that we can try it the next time. They said they liked it but it was too much even for them. I them asked them if they came from Taipei. To the surprise of me and my wife, they both came from 蘇州 Suzhou, about 20 minutes from Shanghai by high speed train. The reason that they sounded so much like Taipei’s young guys was because they learned from their roommates who came from Taipei.

I quitely said to myself that 40 years ago, Taiwan wanted to defeat 共產黨 and go back to mainland China. Now Chinese students from both sides of the 臺灣海峽 Taiwan Strait share a big house together and exchange cultures on a day to day basis. How things have changed!

It’s great! Well, I digressed.

I then found out that one of them was working as a software engineer and the other guy is working on his business degree. Both had EE degree and came to the US for advanced studies.

I asked the business major when he will graduate. He said he’ll graduate after next semester. I asked him if he was looking for a job and he said campus interview starts soon.

I then told him about my son who also had a business degree, his one-year stay in Taiwan and his experience in looking for his job in the field of finance. I explained to him the process that my son had gone through and gave him a tip or two as if I went through the grind myself. For them, I found out that it would be even more difficult because they don’t have PR, 綠卡, or permanent residency.

After I finished my soju and our left overs packed, the business major guy asked me if he could have my son’s contact information. I gladly offered it to him and asked him to get in touch with my son. Hopefully my son can help him out in his quest for a job in the US. Unfortunately they have to go through a lottery procesd to get a working visa even though their employers wanted to sponsor them for a green card because there are limited number of working visas being allotted every year. Each year, they have a 40 to 60% chance of being picked by a lottery process depending on their field of expertise. They have either one or two chances to get one. If they don’t get picked by the computer, they either  have to go back home or go back to school. The software engineer didn’t get picked this year: it started on April 1st and notifications were sent out in mid June. He has one more chance next year. The business major only has one shot because his expertise isn’t deemed ‘necessary’ for the United States.

I wished them luck in their pursuit of their dreams in the US.

As for the food, they were good: fresh, excellent quality, huge portions and fast service. The owner waited for us to finish our meals and by the time we finished talking, there were only four of us still there. I swore that she was more than ready to lock up the shop and go home. It must have been a long day for her too.

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I was happy because I had a little more soju than I should have and I had helped him Probably just enough to get him an on-site interview. Whether he’s from 台北 or 蘇州 isn’t important. I wished him luck and who knows we might see each other some other time at somewhere else.

Chinese has an old saying: ‘有緣修得同船渡.’

We were equally ‘有緣’ to share a table on a Saturday night at a small Korean restaurant in Annandale which we randomly picked out from Yelp.

It was the female owner who actually made all this possible. Wouldn’t you agree? 這也是緣分。你說是不是?

We’ll go back to To Sok Jip again. We want to try Bossam and a few other dishes. May be we’ll meet other young guys or girls from China or Taiwan. Who knows, we may share the same table again.

蘇州觀前街 February 17, 2011

Posted by hslu in China, Food, Gold, Restaurants, Travel.
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We spent our evening in 蘇州 “su1 zhou1” at 觀前街 “guan1 qian2 jie1,” a tourist hot spot in downtown 蘇州.

觀前街, according to our driver was much more fascinating in the evening. He was right: lanterns, push carts, boat loads of people, restaurant waiters telling us how good his restaurant was, young girls selling wulong teas and festival ambiance in the air wherever we went.

The name of the street, 觀前街, originated from the fact that the street is located in front of a 道教 “dao4 jiao4” (Taoism) temple called 玄妙觀 “xuan2 miao4 guan1.” A Taoism temple is called 道. means in front of and means street. When we were there, the Taoism temple, 玄妙觀, was closed and we didn’t get a chance to see what the inside was like.

We went to this famous restaurant for dinner. It served authentic Shanghai dishes. Their sweet and sour fish was tender and fresh. The restaurant was first in business since the late 1700's. The restaurant was fancy and spacious on the inside, The food was well prepared: artful culinary knife skills, fresh ingredients, reasonable prices and friendly services.

 

We grew up with this store called 亨達利 "heng2 da2 li4." It started as an eyeglasses store in Taiwan and now has many stores in China, many of them in very desirable spots in busy shopping centers. I didn't know that it was also in gold and jewel business like this one does.

Gold is big in China. With Chinese citizens getting richer by the day, their Renminbi has gone to stocks, real estate, cars and gold. This one is unique because it illustrates the heroes of "Three Kingdoms". in great details. Its cost was well over $5,000.

觀前街 night market was very busy and we had a good time there.

蘇州 寒山寺 February 16, 2011

Posted by hslu in China, Life, Death and Yuanfen, Shanghai, Travel.
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蘇州 “su4 zhou1” is a beautiful place which will always occupy a corner in my heart for as long as I live.

As part of our trip to Shanghai in November 2010, we made an overnight trip to 蘇州 to fulfill a wish of mine twenty four years ago. This was the second time I visit this beautiful place.

In December 1986, my Mom and I went on a trip from the U.S. to our home town in 湖北省廣濟縣 “hu2 bei3 sheng3 guang3 ji4 xian4” (Hubei Province, Guangji County.)  We first went to 武漢 “wu3 han4,” a city of 9.7 million people in Hubei Province, 湖北省, to see my 92-year old 外婆 “wai4 po2” (my Mom’s mother) and many of our relatives whom I have never met for my entire life.

We also went to the village where my Dad was born and raised in called 瓦雀湾 “wa3 que4 wan1” near a tiny little town called 两路口  “liang3 lu4 kou3.” 瓦雀湾 is a small village in the middle of rice fields with fewer than 50 people and about 20 houses built with dirt bricks and muddy walls. I went there to see the village I called hometown, meet a few of my relatives who had stayed in the hometown and to search my root.

My uncle met us at Shanghai Airport and took us on a trip I will never forget. This will be the subject of a future blog.

One of the stops of our 1986 trip was 蘇州 on 12/16/1986.

The day earlier, I met my cousin, one of many, in the city of 杭州 “hang2 zhou1,” for the first time. After dinner, he left the place where we were staying for the evening but carried an important responsibility: Purchase three overnight tickets with sleeping accommodation on a motorboat from 杭州 to 蘇州, our next stop.

Well, it sounded easy enough but it wasn’t exactly a walk in the park like we do now: buying tickets online, paid for them with our credit card, got confirmation on the spot and then show up at the gate. He, being a student at a local university with no connection and no relationship to speak of, had to get up at 5:30 am and waited in line to buy the tickets using our passports and my uncle’s ID card. In those days, everywhere we went, we had to show our documents. If we stayed at our relative’s place, he had to informed the local control board of our intentions, where we came from and the duration of our stay. People simply couldn’t travel from one place to another without proper cause and necessary document.

Well, he came back around 7:30 am the next morning and said he was able to get those tickets without any problem because he was up early enough.

We then toured the city of 杭州 the rest of the day, took bus to boat depot and boarded a small motorboat somewhere in the city of 杭州 after sunset. We had to take buses when we were in 杭州 because taxi was hard to come by: the taxi driver couldn’t keep our money for himself and it really didn’t matter whether they served any customers or not for any day of the year.

It was the middle of December and it was very cold. The air was damp and I could almost felt the moisture in the air. We didn’t have enough blankets and our clothes from the U.S. weren’t exactly made for rigid winter weather in China where indoor heating wasn’t available at any place in the nation south of 長江 “chang2 jiang1,” the Yangtzy River. There wasn’t indoor heating on this small boat either: probably big enough for 30 to 40 people  on board and most of them didn’t have a bed for the entire trip. The door wouldn’t close properly. The windows had cracks big enough to let gushes of cold air in. The mattress sagged and they had probably been used for 20+ years or more. And everyone got a small blanket barely big enough to cover my entire body. I remembered kept waking up in the night and tried to adjust my blanket to keep my body covered. It felt cold the entire night even though I slept in my cloth the entire time. Well, we woke up around 3 am because we couldn’t sleep anymore, not with the boat rocking back and forth, the smell of burning motor oil permeating in the cabinet and thrusting engine noise that just wouldn’t stop.

By 5:30 am when it was still dark outside, the workers on the boat had already called out to wake us up because we had arrived at the city of 蘇州. After docking the boat, we got our four pieces of large suitcases, got out of the port and faced with a not-too-small problem: it was too early for taxi drivers to start their day’s work. You see, the taxi drivers worked for the country like everybody did at that time. Very few people were allowed to have their own business. Everyone, no matter what they do, worked for the government. Taxi drivers started their day at 6 am or later depending on their shift.

Well, my uncle was able to find a small truck with make-shift wooden cage covering the back of the truck; kind like the ones farmers in Taiwan used to transport pigs or animals from the farm to the market. We paid him a small amount of money and he agreed to take us to the railroad station; thus began our one-day tour of 蘇州. It was also a trip I couldn’t forget until this day.

We had to go the railroad station first because we needed to buy tonight’s train tickets to 南京 “nan2 jing1” first and that was where we could take bus to   begin our tour of 蘇州. 南京 was the next stop on our tour and it was place where I was born. At that time, my uncle was a graduate student at a college in the city of  南京.

The last stop of our 蘇州 tour was 寒山寺 “han2 shan1 shi4,” (Cold Mountain Temple or Hanshansi.)

寒山寺 was small compared to many temples in China but it was very famous because of a 七言绝句 “qi1 yan2 jue2 jv4,” called  楓橋夜泊 “feng1 qiao2 ye4 bo2” by poet 張繼 “zhang1 ji4” of the Tang Dynasty.

楓橋夜泊 means mooring in the evening near Maple Bridge. 七言绝句 is a unique form of old Chinese poem: each poem has four sentences and each sentence has seven words. The poem also have to follow a unique pattern of tones as well.

As we walked up to the temple, the first thing we saw was a bright orange wall about 50 feet long and 12 feet high spanning across the entrance of the temple. On the wall were three Chinese characters in black: 寒山寺. I stood in front of the wall, tried to trace the strokes of these words in my mind and admired the beauty of Chinese calligraphy. We then entered into the compound and visited the temple first to pay respect to 菩薩 “pu2 sa1,” Bodhisattva and 佛 “fo2,”  the Buddha.

Inside the temple compound I could see the place was in need of sprucing up every where we went:  many parts of the brick wall was crumbling down, the paint on the building was chipping away and the temple was old and had suffered some damage both inside and out. China back then was still a very poor country. People made on average 150 – 200 Renminbi a month no matter what their jobs were. A low level worker in a factory might make 140 Renminbi a month. A university professor could make as high as $220 Renminbi depending our his or her seniority. A high level party leader in the central government might make 250 to 280 Renminbi a month. Tourism was still in its infancy and no one had any extra money to visit anywhere. The nation was simply too poor to make any improvement to a small temple: there were simply too many projects in the nation that needed improvement and renovation.

We then walked to the bell tower which had suffered some wear and tear from years of ignorance and was closed to the public.

The small two-story bell tower didn’t stand out to the tourists at all: its windows were dirty, some of the outer layer of the exterior wall had peeled off, the white wall had turned to gray with brownish stains and the building was blocked off from us using a make-shift wooden fence. We couldn’t see anything from outside of the fence but we were told that the bell would sound later.

Sure enough, the bell sounded when we were still close by. The deep and low pitch sound traveled to every corner of the area and went beyond the wall of the temple. It was soothing, relaxing and peaceful.

As I was enjoying the bell toll, my mind was inevitably bought back to a scene 1,250 years ago in the city of 蘇州 near 寒山寺, the very place I was standing at, as described in the Chinese poem:  楓橋夜泊, the 七言绝句  by 張繼.

月落烏啼霜滿天, “yuè luò wū tí shuāng mǎn tiān,”

A moonless night with cawing crows; frost covering everywhere in sight,

江楓漁火對愁眠, ” jiāng fēng yǘ huǒ duì chóu mián,”

In the mist of maple trees lining the river banks flickering lights on fishing boats, I felt asleep with my sorrow.

姑蘇城外寒山寺, “gū sū chéng wài hán shān sì,”

In the distance outside the city of Gusu was the Temple of Hanshan,

夜半鍾聲到客船。 “yè bàn zhōng shēng dào kè chuán,”

The sound of the mid-bight bell travel far away to the boat of a lonely traveler.

When the bell toll was over, I thought about what my Mom and Dad had gone through since they moved to Taiwan from China, about myself staying in a country I couldn’t exactly call it my own and about the trip we are taking now to see our relatives in our hometown. Although 張繼 had his grievances when he wrote this poem, we had to go through four decades of our lives without knowing anything about my grandparents,  uncles and aunts, cousins and other relatives. The civil between China and Taiwan brutally separated three million Chinese people from their loved ones who unfortunately stayed behind the Iron Curtain of China. We also had to endure our sorrows. Although it was a matter of days before we could meet them, it was difficult to see the future from that point forward. When will we be able to come back again? When will I be able to come back to this lovely temple? Will my relatives still be alive when I come to visit them next? So many questions but so few answers. Politicians and ruthless rulers in China’s past conquered territories, defeated their enemies and destroyed untold numbers of innocent people’s lives and built a new dynasty over the dead bodies and sorrows of so many unfortunate people. The civil war between the Communist Party and Kuomintang after WWII sent Kuomintang packing and forced them into exile in a small island of  Taiwan.

Forty years had past and we just begun to repair the damaged lives of our family with this trip 24 years ago.

Although I was very emotional hearing the bell toll, I also liked the opportunity to actually seeing the place where the poem was originated from. I realized back then that China has waken up from a terrible nightmare, a nightmare that set the country back by at least 50 years.I was also very hopeful, especially after I finished my trip and flew back to the United States from Beijing. I hoped that China will changed into a new, strong and powerful country. I hoped that we can travel in and out of this country much freely than my trip 24 years ago. I also hoped that I can tak e my kids back to this country and let them see and feel what their roots are like.

And to 蘇州, I said to myself in 1986 that one of these days I will come back to visit this place again.

And it took me 24 years to fulfill my wish.

This time in 2010, 寒山寺 was still here. The bright orange wall in front of the entrance was still the first thing we saw.  The bell tower still stood at the same location. But everything else was so much different from what I remembered 24 years ago.

Coming from Shanghai, the bullet train took no more than half an hour reaching 蘇州. Tickets were dispensed through automatic machines. We rode in a Toyota minivan from the train station to 寒山寺. The price of the 寒山寺 admission ticket probably increased by 40 times. Number of tourists may have increased by 20 times. The entire complex, including the temple and the bell tower had a coat of new paint.

The Bell Tower

A new and much bigger and taller pagoda bell tower was added in the back of the compound.

The December weather was still cold and the sound of the bell was still as soothing and peaceful as before. I had noticed that they had gone through a few bells.

The famous poem was inscribed on several stone tablets around the temple compound.

The temple also had many displays showing Buddhism culture inside the temple compound.

One of them was this Chinese character, 佛 “fo2,”  the Buddha, carved on a slab of black stone.

Another one which caught my eye had to do with the guarding Buddha  for people who were born in the year of the pig in Chinese zodiac.

 

According to the sign, for whatever it is worth, the guarding Buddha of people who were born in years of dog and pig is 阿彌陀佛 “e1 mi1 tuo2 fo2,” the Amitabha.

Finally, I came up to this poem which really stirred up my emotion.

It describes a person who had traveled thousands of  miles away from his hometown. He came back to 蘇州 on the south of the Yangtze River because he had promised ten years ago to come back again. Although maple trees and rivers in 蘇州 were still the same as before, all he could do this time was listen to the midnight bell toll sound from the 寒山寺 by himself.

Although I didn’t come back until 24 years later, I took my wife and my son with me so that I didn’t have to listen to the bell toll by myself.

Wow! How time flies.

一生能有幾個二十四年啊!”yi1 sheng1 neng2 you3 ji1 ge4 er4 shi2 si4 nian2 a4″

How many 24 years does one have in one’s life time?

May be a better question now is “When can I come back to 蘇州  寒山寺 again?

哎! “ai1!” such is life.

上海游記 Nov. 28 – Dec. 16, 2009 Day 5, Hangzhou January 6, 2010

Posted by hslu in China, Chinese Food, Cooking, Food, Restaurants, Travel.
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上海游記 Nov. 28 – Dec. 16, 2009

Day 5, Hangzhou, Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bao got up super early to exercise. I didn’t want to go but couldn’t sleep so I joined her about 10 minutes later. Looking out from the exercise room, the smog was gone and the sky was clear. We could see clearly The Bund across黃浦江 “huang2 pu3 jiang4.” It would be a very nice day to travel. Today, we’d take train to hangzhou, a city with natural beauty and cultural heritages about 110 miles southwest of Shanghai.

We packed our luggage, had our breakfast and got Xiaobao up too. We checked out of the hotel but decided to keep 3 pieces of our luggage there so that we didn’t have to drag them along for the overnight trip. I picked up three 動車組train tickets at the business center which I ordered a day before. Based on what I could gather from the Internet, 動車組 referred to a faster train going back and forth between major cities. The one-way ticket to hangzhou was ¥54 each but I had to pay ¥20 delivery fee for each ticket. Slowest trains might take as much as 3 times longer at about ½ the price. The taxi ride to上海南站 “shang4 hai3 nan2 zhan4” cost ¥120 and it took 40 minutes to get there because it was pretty far away from our hotel.

On the way there, I used my cellphone to take a few pictures of a few interesting landmarks. When we got there, I put it back to the holster which was clipped to my belt inside my jacket. We each got our carry-on luggage, walked into the train station and found the waiting area to wait for the train. A few minutes later, I wanted to check the time but couldn’t find my cellphone. The holster was gone too. It was apparent that my cellphone was stolen by a person who was near the place we got off the taxi. He must have taken my cellphone from my belt without my knowledge. Had I left my cellphone on the taxi, the holster should still be there.

Well, in addition to the inconvenience of not having a phone with us and the additional cost of another ¥118 for a SIM card, the missing cellphone created another problem for me. On Monday, we took a taxi back to the hotel after a day’s outing. The taxi drive seemed to be an honest guy who was very talkative and friendly. I asked him about taking a taxi to朱家角 “zhu1 jia1 jiao3;” a tourist spot outside of Shanghai famous for its old city look or so-called 老街 “lao3 jie1.” He said he’d do it for ¥400 round trip and he’d wait for us while we shopped and ate there. He’d pick us up at the hotel around 10 AM and take us back to our hotel in the evening around 7 or 8 PM. I thought it was a good deal because it saved us time and energy to look for a bus to 朱家角 which would for sure take longer than taking a taxi. We exchanged phone numbers and he said he’d call me Thursday night to confirm the deal for Friday. I told him that we’d for sure take his taxi to 朱家角.

Hmm, I wasn’t sure what to do now because I didn’t know his name or the name of the taxi company. I had to somehow find the phone numbers on the cellphone. Well, I’d worry about it when we came back from Hangzhou.

A few minutes later our train was called on the PA. We rushed to the platform and quickly found our seats. The train was very new, had many passengers and left the train station on time. Bao went to the dinning car and got a 便當 “bian4 dang1,“ or boxed lunch, and a drink back for me. The bian4 dang1 did look that appetizing. I left it on the car and drank the juice. Shanghai to Hangzhou took one hour and twenty minutes. We got out of train station at around 11 AM.

Many people came to ask if we wanted a tour package. Since I didn’t make any arrangement prior to our arrival, I was going to hire someone to take us around anyway. The key was to find someone who looked honest and reliable. I refused several guys and took the offer of a middle-aged man who agreed to drive us in a mini-van to eat at a local restaurant and then to our hotel for ¥30. I thought this was a reasonable offer. He said he’ll take us to a clean restaurant and tried the famous Xihu cuisine. I asked him about taking us around to see Hangzhou’s famous Xihu and 靈隱寺 “ling2 yin3 si4.” He said he’d do it for ¥500 but not to 靈隱寺 because it ‘d take more than a couple of hours. He’d take us to three points of interests along Xihu, a local farm house to try Xihu’s famous 龍井 “long2 jin3” tea and tour a local silk plant. I agreed and off we went to the restaurant first. The guy acted as our tour guide. His wife was the driver.

The restaurant seemed to be a favorite spot of tour guides because the wait staff all knew my driver and tour guide. The outside of the free-standing building looked better than its inside probably because it was kind of dark and cold in the dinning room. It looked not that clean but it did have about 20 guests sitting at two big round tables near the front door. They looked like foreign tourists to me because of the way they talked and dressed.

We ordered a plate of stir-fried 蓮藕 (¥25) “lian2 ou3,” or lotus roots, which was in abundant supply at Xihu.

We also ordered several famous Xihu dishes:

1.                  東坡肉 (¥6/order) “dong1 po1 rou4,” a famous Hangzhou dish following the receipt handed down by one of the greatest poet in the Song Dynasty (宋朝), 蘇東坡 “su1 dong1 po1.”

2.                  青椒牛柳 (¥35) “qing1 jiao1 niu3 rou4,” beef tenderloin stir-fried with fresh pepper,

3.                  西湖醋魚 (¥35) “xi1 hu2 chu4 yu2,” local fish from Xihu in vinegar sauce,

and

4.                  宋嫂魚羹 (¥20) “song4 sou3 yu2 geng1,” fish soup with ginger, white pepper, white wine and vinegar.

蓮藕 was very fresh and yummy. 青椒牛柳 was way better than what we’ve tried in DC. The beef tenderloin was tender with right amount of spice. The fresh pepper was hot. Even my restaurant couldn’t make a dish like this. 東坡肉wasn’t too bad but it certainly needed at least another half-hour of cooking time in a clay pot. It could also use a bit more sugar too. Even my version was better than this. 宋嫂魚羹 was not too bad but it had some fish bones in the broth. The chef might have used a touch more vinegar to me. 西湖醋魚 was a huge disappointment: the presentation was downright ugly, the fish was steamed not deep-fried, the fish had too many fish bones and the sauce looked awful and over-powered by too much vinegar. One thing I couldn’t argue was its price: the entire meal cost less than $20. well, I wouldn’t go back to this restaurant next time. I’d find out where i wanted to go and asked the driver to take us there instead.

The legendary Hangzhou’s scenery has been made famous for hundreds of years by a well-known Chinese saying:  上有天堂, 下有蘇杭 “shang4 you3 tian1 tang2, xia4 you1 su1 hang2” which implies that the scenery at 蘇杭can only be matched with that in the heaven. 蘇 refers to 蘇州 Suzhou and 杭 refers to 杭州. 蘇州is a smaller city about 80 miles northeast of 杭州 Hangzhou. It is also near a much bigger lake called  太湖 “tai4 hu2.” In addition, 杭州 is in the 浙江 ”zhe4 jiang1” Province while 蘇州 is in 江蘇 ”jiang1 su1” Province.

Our first stop was 雷峰塔  “lei2 feng1 ta3;” one of the most beautiful sights near Xihu. The original pagoda was built a little more than 1,000 years ago during the North Song 北宋 “bei3 song4” Period. The pagoda was damaged or burned to the ground several times because of wars in the past. It was last rebuilt in autumn of 2002 following the original design. The pagoda was built in two years at a cost of ¥150,000,000. It has five stories plus an underground level reserved for the ruins of the previous building. There are several smaller buildings surrounding the pagoda and a big lotus pond near the entrance. Hundreds of colorful koi dotted the pond making it a memorable sight. red maple leaves intertwined with many green leaves forming a beautiful landscape around the majestic pagoda.

The pagoda was made famous with the Legend of White Snake; 白蛇傳 “bai2 she2 zhuan4.” The story involved a young scholar (许仙) xu3 xian1” falling in love with a beautiful lady called 白素贞 “bai2 su4 zhen1” who was actually a white snake (白蛇) taken on human form. They got married and had a boy. However, the relationship was forbidden by the heaven. A powerful monk called 法海 ”fa3 hai3” kidnapped 许仙 and jailed him at 金山寺 “jin1 shan1 si4” or the Golden Mountain Temple. To rescue her husband, 白素贞 with the help of her servant 小青 “xiao3 qing1”; a green snake, moved water from a nearby river and flooded the 金山寺.

However, she couldn’t rescue her husband but the flooding killed many innocent people. The reckless act angered the gods and they helped the monk 法海 defeated 白素贞. 法海then buried 白素贞under the 雷峰塔 with no chance of ever getting out of this terrible curse. She remained buried until her son grew up and begged the gods to release his mother. The gods granted his request and 许仙 and 白素贞 lived happily ever after.

As we climbed the steps to the base of the pagoda, a group of young students were also there. One young guy was teased by his friends that he couldn’t carry his girlfriend on his back to the base of the pagoda. He gladly took the challenge and carried her all the way to the top albeit with a lot of effort and a rousing encouragement from their friends. Hmm, I could do the same when I was at his age.

I climbed to the top of the pagoda while Bao and Xiaobao took the elevator. On the fourth level, there were eight big panels of wood carvings illustrating the legend of 白蛇傳. At the top level, I could see Hangzhou in the far ground and another temple on top of a nearby mountain. The interior of the rotunda was covered with hundreds of Buddha images in bright gold-color. The basement was set aside to display nearly a hundred important artifacts of Buddhism dating back several hundred years; many of which came from foreign countries such as India, Bhutan and Naples. The ruins of the previous pagoda were closed off to visitors with glass and chain link fence. We could see some bricks made from dirt, wooden beans and other material. Near the exit, there were a series of several wooden panels depicting the legend of Lady White Snake in bright colors.

Our driver then took us to Xihu where we walked along Su Causeway 苏堤 “su1 ti2” and Bai Causeway 白堤 “bai2 ti2.” I particularly liked the thousands of willow trees along the lake shore and in the surrounding gardens. They were the focal point of so many famous poems over the last thousand years. There were many small boats for rent but we didn’t have time to enjoy that. Besides it was a bit cold to set sail in the lake. However, I could easily be persuaded to tour the lake into the evening in the summer with my loved one or friends, a couple bottles of Chinese yellow wine and a few dishes of 下酒的小菜 ”xia4 jiu3 de1 xiao3 cai4.” Many of China’s famous poets have done this in the past and they have left us with so many famous poems from hundreds of years ago.

Hmm, I think I’ll joint them in the 21 century one of these days. The beautiful Xihu is still the same. The branches of willow trees are still swinging in the wind like they have done in hundreds of years. With Bao by my side, I’ll load my iPhone with Tang and Song poems, carry a bottle of 古越龍山 ”gu3 yue4 long1 shan1;” famous rice wine from绍兴 ”shao4 xing1” two small wine glasses and my Nikon. We’ll rent a boat and spend a lazy afternoon on the lake. We’ll buy a 小菜whenever we want one from boats catering to customers like us. After a few drinks on the lake, maybe I can come up with something that will make Bao keep filling my glass with the wine. Ha Ha Ha! It doesn’t hurt to dream, doesn’t it?

The next stop was a tea farm where we could taste the famous 西湖龍井 ”xi1 hu2 long3 jin3,” a green tea made famous by many Chinese leaders who have visited the farms here. The minivan moved slowly to the top of a mountain. The road got narrower and the air got cooler as we approaching the farm. We saw many tea trees on both sides of the road. They were about 4 to 5’ tall and the leaves were all in dark green color. All these trees were managed by several communities each with four to six thousand workers. I was under the impression that the trees belonged to local governments and the workers were laborer because it was very labor intensive at harvest seasons. The quality of the tea could be roughly determined by the time of harvest: before, during or after one of 24 Chinese lunar periods called 清明 “qing1 ming2:” usually from early April to about April 20th. Before 清明, the young tea leaves were tender and small. Tea made from tea leaves of this period is extremely fragrant. The quality of tea decreases as time goes by. After 清明, the tea leaves have become old and large. Most have already lost that strong fragrance and market value.

The farm house was very modest and there were chickens running around the yard when we entered the farm. The young lady greeted us with a big smile and took us to a room adjacent to the entrance. On the wall, there were several old and brownish pictures of Deng Xiao Ping and Zhou En Lai chatting with farmers. A writing on the wall declared that 西湖龍井was the number one tea under the sky. Another writing near by claimed that the aroma from spring tea was more fragrant than the bouquet of wine.

"tian1 xia4 di1 yi1 cha2"

"chun1 cha2 bi3 jiu3 xiang1"

Our young hostess took out three baskets of teas and asked us to smell and look at each one of them. Sure enough, we could all tell which one was picked first and which one was picked last. She then made tea from each batch and had us try them one after the other. Without guessing, we could all tell which one was better. She hen sweet talked me to buy ¥700 worth of tea: ¥400 of the pre-清明, ¥200 during 清明 and ¥100 of the post-清明 tea.

The last stop was the so-called silk plant. This place was a complete waste of time: the workers were there to put on a show when tourists were there. The sales person was trying not too hard to sell us silk blankets or silk cloth which we had no use in the U. S. We left there quickly and asked our drive took us to our hotel. I gave our driver and tour guide ¥500 for their 3.5 hours of service. I was sure that I paid too much for the service but, in a city that’s unfamiliar to us, a safe trip was more important than ¥100 or so extra I paid to a stranger.

Our hotel, the West Lake Hillview International Hotel, was a mid-size hotel situated not too far from Xihu. The hotel was nice with redwood furniture in the spacious lobby and a young lady was playing a traditional Chinese instrument as we entered the hotel. When we checked in at the front desk, they couldn’t find my reservation even though I booked it through expedia. I showed the young lady my booking record and she asked a young guy over to discuss the situation. The guy was very helpful and said that they would take up the matter with Expedia and put us in a room right away. Not bad a beginning.

The hallway to our room had thick carpet on the floor and dim lights on burgundy-colored redwood walls. The wall was decorated with pictures of Xihu and poems by great poets of the past. I stopped by to read the poems and liked the nice touch. The room was comfortable with a touch of traditional Chinese interior design. It also had beautiful redwood furniture as well.

We quickly put our stuff down, dressed up for the cool evening and went to the lobby to get a taxi. The bellboy was very helpful and a taxi came quickly. I had checked the map of Hangzhou and wanted to visit the market called 清河坊 Qqing1 he2 fang3;” an interesting cultural stop with traditional herb medicine stores, brocade and silk shops, tea houses, restaurants, Ginseng shops, massage parlors, ladies’ fashion stores and street vendors. The antique buildings along both sides of the street still retained many of the features of 南宋 “nan2 song4 chai2,” the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279). In addition to hundreds of red lanterns that decorated the street, there was a huge brass statue of Laughing Buddha with One Hundred Kids 百子弥勒佛 ”bai3 zi3 mi1 le1 fo1” near the entrance of 清河坊. It attracted many visitors because of 弥勒佛’s lively happy expression and different facial expressions of all those kids.

There was an old herb medicine shop and a Chinese medicine clinic. Doctors were treating patients and many patients were waiting for their prescriptions to be filled by several pharmacists. A street vendor was making colorful 西游记 “xi1 you2 ji4” figurines using melted sugar which I haven’t seen in decades. Clerks at many silk shops yelled out prices of silk blankets to attract visitors. People working at tea shops tried their best to get us inside to purchase the famous Xihu Wu Long tea from them. A Ginseng shop proudly displayed its prized ginseng to attract potential buyers.

Many restaurants were busy with customers and we were ready for our dinner too.

Along the mile-long street there were many restaurants serving various cuisines from Canton, Sichuan, Hunan, Jiang Su and Zhe Jiang provinces. There was a McDonald’s and several served American and Japanese cuisines too. We chose a restaurant called 小绍欣 ”xiao3 shao4 xin1” which served traditional 江浙菜 ”jiang1 zhe4 cai4.” 江浙菜 is famous for its time-consuming preparation, refreshing taste and sophisticated ingredients. Cooking methods were the key in many dishes too.

I ordered a bottle of 10 year old 古越龍山 ”gu3 yue4 long1 shan1” to go with the 江浙菜 ”jiang1 zhe4 cai4” we have ordered. I asked the wait staff to warm the rice wine for me and they did it gladly. I ordered these simple dishes:

Soup

  • 髮菜鱼肚汤 “fa3 cai4 yu1 du4 tang1” – Hair-like Seaweed with Fish Stomach Soup. Fish stomach is actually the part of fish that covers fish inners. This part of a fish is very tender because it contains gelatin-like material. It has been said that it is arguably the best part of a fish. 髮菜 is a black-color, hair-like seaweed preferred by Cantonese because 髮菜 “fa3 cai4” pronounces like 發财 “fa1 cai2” which means making big money or to become very wealthy.

Appetizers

  • 皮旦豆腐 ”pi2 dan4 dou4 fu3” – Tofu with Chinese Black Egg. Take a look of the tofu and you’ll see that it was thinly sliced into ~1/8” thick slices. The keys to this dish are 1) the tofu has to be silky soft, 2) the egg white of the 皮旦 should be firm but QQ 的. When you sink your teeth into it, it should offer some resistance to your bite, 3) the egg yolk of the 皮旦 should be soft but not watery and finally 4) the sauce has to be made with first class soy sauce, rice wine, white pepper and small amount of vinegar and sugar. Add enough sesame oil to enhance the taste.
  • 甜藕 “tian2 ou3” – Lotus Root with Sweet Sticky Rice. This was one of the best Lotus Root dishes I’d ever had. The lotus root still retained its brown-pink color and every holes of the lotus root were filled with soft and sticky sweet rice. It was simmered or steamed in chicken stock and brown rock sugar first so that the lotus root and sticky rice could soak up all the sauces. It was then refrigerated over night before being sliced and served.
  • 酒螺 “jiu3 luo2” – Sea Snails in Rice Wine Sauce. This dish was served cold and was something new to me too. I have had smaller, darker spiral-snails before when I was in Tainan because they went well with hard liquor such as高粱酒 “gao1 liang2 jiu3.” This kind of sea snails was different from what I had before. We all tried the snails but I wasn’t sure that we liked them at all. The meat was tough and too chewy. I also didn’t like the sauce either.

  • 带鱼 “dai4 yu2” or Deep-fried Belt-like Fish. When we were living in Taiwan, we ate a lot of dai4 yu2 because it was cheap and very easy to make. The fish was about 3’ to 3.5’ long, ½” to ¾” thick and about 3” to 3.5” wide at its thickest. My mom would just cut it up into 4” to 5” long pieces, covered them in batter and flour, sprinkled some salt and deep-fried them for about 5 minutes or until golden brown on both sides. The fish meat was tender and flaky. It had no bone except the one, long piece along its center. I ordered it because it reminded me of our days in Taichong when we were poor and lived in卷村 “juan4 cun1.”

Entrées

  • 韭菜春笋 “jiu3 cai4 chun1 sun3” – Chinese Chive with Spring Bamboo Shoots. I’ve always liked bamboo shoots especially the fresh winter bamboo shoots or 冬笋 “dong4 sun3.” I knew it has very little nutritious value but I liked its crunchiness and texture. When it was cooked with pork, it could soak up the sauce and became even better than the pork. I also liked its unique taste too. Although the menu said spring bamboo shoots, I was certain that we had winter bamboo shoots instead. Both Xiaobao and I liked 韭菜 because of its unique taste.
  • 东坡肉 “dong1 po1 rou4” – Braised Pork Dong Po Style. 东坡 referred to a famous poet named 蘇東坡 “Su1 Dong1 Po1” (1037 – 1101) of the Northern Song Dynasty. He once was Hangzhou’s chief officer and was responsible for the construction of Su causeway in Xihu. 东坡肉 followed his receipt and cooking style. The meat was very tender and melted in my mouth. The sauce was savory and not very oily. It was great.
  • 腐皮葱花肉 “fu3 pi2 cong1 hua1 rou4” – Tofu skin with Ground Pork and Green Onion. I have never had this dish before and that was the reason why I ordered this dish. It was crunchy on the outside, meaty on the inside and offered a good contrast on the texture. I didn’t like the sauce though.
  • 百花豆腐 “bai3 hua4 dou4 fu3” – Braised Tofu with Hundred Flowers. This dish was good with rice and I liked the sauce very much.

We took our time but it was too much for us to finish. I could tell that both Bao and Xiaobao didn’t like 古越龍山 probably because they have never had this kind of rice wine before. 古越龍山 is a 黄酒 “hunag2 jiu3,” or yellow wine literally, due to its brownish color. 黄酒is commonly refers to 紹興酒 “shao4 xing1 jiu3” because the most famous 黄酒 has been made in the city of 紹興 “shao4 xing1” in Zhejiang Province (浙江省) for thousands of years. 黄酒 is usually drank warm and sometimes with one or two 酸梅 “shuan1 mei2” in your glass. The alcohol content of the wine is relatively low; around 15%.

We finished our meal around 10 PM. The outside was cold and windy. Bao wanted to go back to the hotel. We got a taxi and headed back to our hotel. On the way back, I found out that Hangzhou’s taxi drivers were a lot better off than Shanghai’s taxi drivers: Hangzhou’s taxi driver could easily make ¥10,000 to ¥12,000 a month, easily two to three times of that made by a Shanghai taxi driver. Hangzhou has many foreign tourists and its public transportation system, namely subway, surface light rail network and buses, wasn’t as developed as that in Shanghai.

Today has been a long day because we got up so early in the morning. We’d stay another day in Hangzhou tomorrow and then headed back to Shanghai tomorrow evening.

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