A 1:25 scale model of Datong, China's Yungang Grottoes on display at Tobu World Square in Japan
Hey, wait, those tourists look kind of funny…
click on the photo for a closer look.

(photo by “Kzaral)

At first glance, this looks like a nice photo of the stunning Yungang Grottoes (or Yungang Caves) in Datong, China. At second glance, it still does—at least it did to me when I first saw it. Soon, however, something about the photo started bugging me, and then I realized that it was actually a nice photo of a model of the Yungang Grottoes, specifically the 1:25 scale model on display at Japan’s Tobu World Square. (On the photographer’s page and on the TWS website itself, it’s misleadingly labeled as the Mogao Caves, but that’s actually a different display.) Regardless of the error, those models are pretty impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the actual sites, of course, so if you’d like to see the Yungang Grottoes in person, take a look at our Roots of Chinese Culture 14-Day Tour. The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang are featured on our Silk Road 16-Day Tour. Each of them is a treasure trove of priceless sights and artifacts.

A billboard near Xi'an displaying a lucky phone number - photo by Justin Burner
Unfair: This degree of luck monopolization
should be grounds for an antitrust suit.

(photo by Justin Burner)

This billboard, which is (or was) apparently visible from the parking lot at the terracotta army museum (the tomb of Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor of China) near Xi’an, was photographed by Justin Burner. This is just about the luckiest phone number imaginable in China: eight 8’s. For those of you who don’t know, 8 is considered a profoundly lucky number in Chinese culture and is coveted as a good luck charm in numerical designations of all kinds—even in the United States, if you see a vanity license plate with a bunch of 8’s in it, the driver is likely to be Chinese. Wikipedia has a good explanation of Chinese beliefs about numbers here, and this page includes a lot of interesting additional information.

In fact, the influence of cultural beliefs about the power of numbers can be so strong that a study published in the British Medical Journal found that hospital patients of Chinese and Japanese descent were more likely to die on the 4th day of a given month, as the number 4 is associated with death in both Chinese and Japanese culture. (Patients without this ethnocultural background did NOT die in greater numbers on such days, suggesting that phenomena like this are caused by the psychosomatic power of the belief itself.) The study’s findings are disputed, but it’s still interesting evidence of the potential health effects of one’s thoughts, beliefs, and emotions.

Anyway, by the logic of superstition, this should be just about the most successful business in the world, but I suppose even the best luck can be undone by bad management—or by the laziness of an owner who thinks such a lucky number itself is enough to guarantee success.

Original post (September 2009): One of the nice things about being in Shanghai late in the year—besides avoiding any possibility of hot weather—is the opportunity to experience a Christmas atmosphere in China. It’s one of the consequences of American cultural influence that Christmas is now celebrated by a lot of people there, primarily in the form of decorations and shopping. (What it comes down to, naturally, is that Christmas is another way for the purveyors of materialism to get people to engage in some good old American-style self-indulgence.) I find it all good fun, personally, because there’s no danger of 5,000 years of Chinese culture being done in by a fat, bearded white man in a red suit, but depending on your opinions about globalization I suppose it could be quite disturbing. In any case, it’s certainly a bit surreal to hear “Jingle Bells” in a random Shanghai store and to see statues of Santa Claus, local people dressed up like Santa (not always very convincingly, mind you), enormous Christmas trees, and Christmas lights side-by-side with symbols of Chinese culture. And it’s fascinating to see the Chinese interpretation of Christmas—in some cases you would think you’re in the US, and in other cases they get it horribly or hilariously wrong:

Click on each photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

December 6, 2009 Update: As usual, the “Christmas spirit” of commercialism is in full evidence in Shanghai this year, filling Chinese shoppers with Western cheer. I didn’t see any evidence of killer Santas, lame Santa costumes, or hip-hop Christmas choirs this time, though, so it appears that (as in everything else) China is making progress in its celebration of Christmas. And as you can see from the last photo below, taken in the lobby of Kunming’s Weilong Hotel on November 17th, the imperial presence of Christmas in China isn’t limited to coastal cosmopolitan centers anymore—it has extended its dominion far into the country’s interior:

Click on each photo below to open a full-sized version in a separate window.

September 23, 2011 Addendum: Although this photo wasn’t taken in Shanghai, it seems appropriate to include it here since it’s Christmas-related. On the same November 2009 trip that yielded the photos above, we posed as snowmen for this photo taken deep in a cavern in a remote mountain area of Guangdong Province. That’s right: in a cave in the middle of nowhere in November, there were Western-style snowmen and fake “snow” that you could cause to fall down from the ceiling to take Christmas photos. Another amazing fact about that cavern was that we could get crystal-clear cell phone reception on an international call. Considering I can’t even get cell phone reception in suburban parking garages here in the Bay Area, that was pretty mind-blowing.

Have any anecdotes about your Christmas experiences in China? Feel free to share them with us!

The barrage of information—sensory, cultural, linguistic, emotional—experienced by a Westerner traveling in China can be both thrilling and overwhelming. Depending on your personality and interests, certain things tend to cut through that noise and grab your attention. For me, one of those things is dogs. On our November 2009 trip to China, my traveling companions and I found ourselves taking photos of the dogs we saw in all the different places we went. Although the phenomenon of “toy dog as fashion accessory” is definitely catching on in major Chinese cities, most of the dogs we photographed were living in more rural areas in a more traditional man-dog relationship, which is to say they were not relentlessly groomed and spoiled. In some cases the conditions they lived in were a bit pitiful. Like dogs anywhere else, however, one thing that all of these Chinese dogs seemed to share was personality.

Given the familiar and purposeful way with which he trotted down Dali’s Foreigner Street, the center of night life in the city, this party animal seemed to be running an errand or something. In fact, the more “urban” dogs we saw all seemed to share that sense of purpose and to live faster-paced lives, much like the cities’ human denizens.

Watching this weird-looking dog in Dali, however, really made me sad. A still photo doesn’t do its weirdness justice; the way it moved made it seem somehow broken, or as if a mad scientist had assembled it from leftover dog parts. It was clearly suffering from some kind of debilitating affliction.

These guys were enjoying the sunlight partway up Lijiang’s Jade Dragon Snow Mountain at White Water River, hanging out with tourists and yaks. They were apparently used to having their pictures taken, as they were uninterested in our presence and utterly nonchalant. Begging for food was clearly beneath them, too, so they also must have been quite well fed. Something about the self-assured coolness of that second dog somehow reminds me of Jack Nicholson or Marlon Brando.

This dog in Lijiang’s “old town” area of Baisha (“White Sand”) hung out with us in the open-air restaurant where we ate, begging for scraps, which it got quite a few of. At first I thought the owners wouldn’t want us feeding it and thus encouraging it to keep begging, but it didn’t seem to occur to them that some people wouldn’t want a dog underfoot as they ate. It didn’t bother us, at any rate. But this dog sure seemed to have a sense of entitlement—it made me feel like a total jerk for even considering not feeding it. A couple of other restaurants we ate at in Yunnan and Guangdong also had dogs hanging around, and they actually lent a certain charm to these places. Reminded me a bit of the dog lying on the bar at Arkey Blue’s Silver Dollar in Bandera, Texas, a “dude ranch” town I used to frequent as a kid.

a cute puppy in Lijiang, China a cute dog in Shuhe Old Town, Lijiang, China
A cute puppy in Lijiang
(photo by CIT’s Tracy Liu)
Another cute dog in Lijiang
(photo by CIT’s Tracy Liu)

I don’t even remember seeing these dogs that Tracy, a friend working in our Shanghai office, got photos of, but they’re cute little fellows.

This dog in Shuhe, our favorite “old town” area of Lijiang, on the other hand, made quite an impression on us and probably a lot of other tourists, too. We all agreed that this is one homely pooch, clear proof that “ugly” is an international language. It’s no Sam, mind you, but not very attractive. Since it seemed like a nice dog, though, I’ll refrain from talking any further smack about it. Poor guy.

a friendly dog wagging its tail at Xianggelila (Shangri-la), China three toy dogs pulling a cat in a patriotic chariot during Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China
Mmmm…gimme some more o’ that!
(photo by CIT)
Pussycat-whipped
(photo by CIT)

As you can see from its blurry tail, this dog roaming the streets of Xianggelila’s Old Town was quite pleased, presumably because it was being fed.

These poor dogs were pressed into service to pull this preening, pompous pussycat in its own chariot—a flagrant perversion of the natural order, in my caninocentric opinion. But far stranger stuff than this goes down in Shanghai.

a classic Chinese dog raised for food in Shaoguan, China
In memoriam: Rover
(photo by CIT)

I’ve saved the most tragic dog for last. This dog that we met briefly in Guangdong seemed like a perfectly serviceable companion—healthy, apparently well behaved, and even reasonably good-looking. As we passed by, our local tour guide made a comment that this dog would “上桌子,” which literally means “go up on the table.” You can probably guess what he meant, but I unthinkingly and naively replied with something like “Oh, lots of dogs have a tendency to jump up on the table.” Foolish foreigner. What he meant, of course, was that the poor dog was destined to be someone’s dinner. As I understand it, in many places in China dogs are generally not eaten, but Guangdong is one of the exceptions. Man’s best friend, indeed. Although I try not to be culturally judgmental, I must admit this is one practice that seems just barbaric to me. On the other hand, if you don’t see anything barbaric, you’re not really traveling. That should be a saying. In any case, rest in peace, O Tasty Rover.

Today we’re reintroducing the first three images in a series of free desktop wallpaper (desktop background images), with more to come in the near future. The photos used for our wallpaper were all taken by CIT partners and representatives.

Click on the wallpaper image to display a full-sized image, then right-click on it and choose an option
such as “Set As Desktop Background” or “Save As…” to save it on your computer.

View of Hong Kong from Victoria Peak
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Crepuscular Rays at Lijiang’s Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, Yunnan
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Vivid Green Algae in the Water at Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
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In a previous post [to be re-posted in expanded form soon], I mentioned China’s “economic miracle.” The most miraculous thing about it is that it has not (so far) been accompanied by crippling social instability or insurmountable problems. However, the costs of this revolution are also quite real and multifaceted. One of these costs is the rapid loss of China’s traditional culture, including the environments in which this traditional culture was born and has thrived. Although the government is making efforts to preserve the most important examples of its cultural heritage (especially sites that are of value to the tourism industry), in many places old buildings and other manifestations of China’s historical legacy are being destroyed wholesale in favor of rapid modernization.

In Shanghai, for example, vast tracts of the city filled with traditional buildings are being razed and replaced with new high-rise buildings. Though they provide people with cleaner, more comfortable, more modern living and working environments, these new buildings seem to result in a much more isolated and less intimate community atmosphere than the traditional neighborhoods that the majority of Shanghai’s population used to live in. These neighborhoods were built around a style of house called “shíkùmén,” or “stone gates,” which over time often became extremely crowded as they were subdivided into smaller units.

Shanghai - shikumen doors - 250 x 188 Shanghai - shikumen laundry and furniture - 250 x 188
Shikumen doors
(photo by CIT)
Laundry and furniture in a shikumen lane
(photo by CIT)

When I first visited my wife’s grandmother’s neighborhood nine years ago, my impression of these shikumen was that they were usually dirty and unbelievably cramped, and that no one who lived in them could have any privacy whatsoever, or even real comfort. Some of them, in fact, reminded me of rabbit warrens or bunkers of some sort, with ladders, steep stairways, and narrow, dimly-lit hallways connecting their cramped rooms. They were definitely not the kind of place I could see myself ever getting used to.

Shanghai - shikumen residents 1 - 250 x 188 Shanghai - shikumen propaganda 1 - 250 x 188
Shikumen residents
(photo by CIT)
“Humankind has only one planet
Everybody attend to the population problem”

(photo by CIT)
Shanghai - shikumen kitten - 250 x 188 Shanghai - shikumen kitten closeup - 250 x 188
Tiny kitten on a shikumen ledge
(photo by CIT)
A shikumen haiku: Kitten on the edge
Small patch of urban ledge-grass
Precarious life

After having spent some time there and having observed the residents’ lifestyle, however, I came to see the other side of life in the shikumen: the sense of intimacy, interconnectedness, and community responsibility that they fostered, especially given the fact that the same families have often inhabited these houses for generations. For someone who had grown up in such a place, the shikumen way of life would no doubt seem natural and comfortable in a way that life in one of the newer buildings could probably never be. With activities like washing clothes and playing chess often done outside, in the small lanes on which these houses are located, neighbors inevitably interact every day and come to know one another well. In Shanghai’s newer buildings, on the other hand, neighbors often don’t seem to know each other, and they have little incentive to get to know each other, because they’re all comfortably shut away and don’t have to interact. I’ll admit that, yes, I too would much rather live in one of these comfortable new units, which are much more like the apartments many Americans are used to living in. But l can’t help feeling that the disappearance of the shikumen and the resulting fragmentation of Shanghai’s communities has a tragic side as well.

This, then, is a tribute to Shanghai’s shikumen, in the form of these photos I took during a 2007 visit to my wife’s grandmother’s neighborhood. It’s entirely possible that in the next few years these homes, too, and with them a great deal of history, will disappear.

Shanghai - shikumen skyscraper 2 - 267 x 200 Shanghai - shikumen propaganda 2 - 150 x 200
Looming skyscraper in the haze:
Better than the shikumen?

(photo by CIT)
More increasingly rare
propaganda: “Proposal for
establishing a safe family”

(photo by CIT)
Shanghai - shikumen residents 2 - 267 x 200 Shanghai - shikumen skyscraper 1 - 150 x 200
Shikumen residents:
A disappearing way of life

(photo by CIT)
The face of change
(photo by CIT)
Shanghai - shikumen - curving lane - 267 x 200 Shanghai - shikumen walls - 150 x 200
A curving shikumen lane
(photo by CIT)
Shikumen walls
(photo by CIT)
Shanghai - sign - no bugles - CIT - small - 320 x 240
Enough with the bugle playing already, dude!
(photo by CIT)

Signs like this can be found all over Shanghai and probably other cities in China as well.  The first time I saw one, my first reaction (edited for added alliteration) was, “Wait, there’s a ban on bugle playing?  Are public binges of blasting by roving bands of buglers a problem here?”  But of course the horn is meant to represent a car horn, and as anyone who’s spent any time on roads in China can attest, excessive horn use IS a problem.  In certain areas like residential developments, these signs help discourage people from using their horn for everything from warning other drivers to warning pedestrians, warning cylists, urging traffic to move faster, expressing indignation, and apparently just asserting their right to blow their horn whenever they feel like it.

While I’m on the topic of  driving in China, I’ll go ahead and plug a book I read recently that I found moving, fascinating, and funny: Country Driving: a Chinese Road Trip, by Peter Hessler.  At some point I’d like to write a review of it in this blog, but for now I’ll just say that it’s required reading for anyone who wants to understand contemporary China and some of the effects that the rapid changes there have had on the lives of the Chinese people.

Every month I feature a “Random Discovery Photo of the Month” on our website, a photo that is “random” in both the traditional sense of the word (chosen with no very specific criteria in mind and in no conscious order) and the contemporary colloquial sense of “strange and surprising.” Most of the photos on our site highlight China’s many beautiful and culturally profound places, but I wanted to have a prominent place to regularly feature photos to reflect the delightfully humorous, quaint, or just plain weird things that foreign travelers inevitably experience in China. Many of these photos were taken by me during one of my many travel experiences in China, though sometimes I choose an interesting photo that I’ve come across on Flickr or another Internet source.

Panda condensed milk - Ming Xia - small - 240 x 281 Adibas - Lanchongzi - small - 320 x 213

March 2010: This is not, of course, actual panda milk, but cow’s milk produced by a company with the name Panda Brand, but at first glance it’s pretty disturbing. Given that even within China the Cantonese people are known for daring to eat anything (“广东人没有不敢吃的”), one wonders whether this would be a Cantonese delicacy if pandas were not an endangered species. (photo by Ming Xia)

April 2010: “Adibas” shoes—In China I’ve seen every kind of attempt to narrowly avoid copyright infringement you can imagine (including a t-shirt with a familiar-looking cartoon dog called “Snooby”), but for some reason this one in particular cracks me up. In a similar vein, here are some amusing variations on the McDonald’s logo that I recently came across online. (photo by “Lanchongzi”)

Beijing - leprechaun - Ivan Walsh - small - 320 x 240 Shaoguan - US army pillows - small - 240 x 320

May 2010: This leprechaun was apparently a participant in Beijing’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade. He seems to be pulling off the unlikely role with self-applauding conviction, despite the conspicuous clash between his red beard and black hair. (photo by Ivan Walsh)

June 2010: I came across these “U.S. Army” pillows in a resort store in an isolated mountain area of Guangdong Province in 2009. (Interestingly, in recent years I have continued to see people in China dressed in clothing featuring the American flag or a reference to the U.S. military.) In that same mountain area, an area with almost no Western tourist presence, I came across cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon being sold in a roadside convenience store. Globalization is happening in some very surprising ways.

Beijing - Wangfujing - scorpion kabobs - Thierry - small - 320 x 240 Guangdong - fowl traffic - a flock of birds walking along a road - small - 320 x 240

July 2010: In my many trips to China, I still haven’t tried scorpion, but these “scorpion kabobs” (for sale in Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping district) do look surprisingly tasty. You might need a toothpick, though. (photo by Thierry)

August 2010: On the same trip to Guangdong Province, I saw these birds (ducks, I think, but I’m not sure) being herded along the road like goats or sheep. Unfortunately, I could only snap this blurry photo through the windows of our bus as we navigated the traffic jam. Driving conditions were quite fowl that day, you might say.

Lijiang - Dayan - dog on roof - Chris Feser Shanghai - cat chariot - CIT - small - 320 x 240

September 2010: One of my favorite places in China is Lijiang, a remote valley nestled amidst spectacular mountains in Yunnan Province. One of its many charms is the laid-back character of its “old town” areas, where you can see sights like barmaids engaging in a spirited singing contest with competitors across the lane or dogs hanging out on roofs. (photo by Chris Feser)

October 2010: Last fall, on my umpteenth trip to Shanghai’s Bund (it never gets old), I came across one of the strangest sights I’ve ever seen: this cat decadently ensconced in a chariot being pulled down the street by a hapless team of toy dogs. The chariot seems to be some kind of patriotic nod to the Shanghai Expo, which was still going on at the time but certainly didn’t need a gimmick like this to get media attention. Someone in the crowd of pedestrians surrounding the chariot, noticing my baffled reaction, said something I didn’t quite catch about how the chariot had achieved some level of Internet fame in China. I haven’t been able to confirm that claim, but I certainly would not be surprised if it were true. (On a side note, how is it that Star Wars computer wallpaper, among other completely random images, comes up in a Google image search for “Shanghai Expo cat chariot”? Looks like that algorithm needs a little tweaking, Google.)

Xi'an - Chad Pennington bear - CIT - small - 320 x 240 Ice Tiger - Ivan Walsh - small - 320 x 268

November 2010: “Pennington Bear”—While visiting a newly developed pedestrian mall area in Xi’an last fall, I noticed a group of human billboards (can’t say what they were promoting, however) in various animal costumes and clown getups. You would think that the bear or cat costume this guy was wearing would be enough to get people’s attention, but no…for no reason that I can puzzle out, he threw in a Chad Pennington jersey for good measure. Chad Pennington, of all people—a player in an American sport that I’m quite sure had nothing to do with whatever they were promoting, a sport that as far as I know isn’t even marginally popular in China. For that matter, how did they even get their hands on a Chad Pennington jersey in Xi’an? Truly random.

December 2010: This ice sculpture of a tiger head appears to be eating a minivan. This photo was taken in Northeastern China near Harbin, whose outdoor winter display of giant ice sculptures is internationally famous. (photo by Ivan Walsh)

A group of boys playing a game on the street in Dayan Town Shanghai Museum - cartoon figure - CIT - small - 320 x 240

January 2011: This is another photo from Dayan, one of the “old town” sections of Lijiang, that exemplifies its relaxed and informal vibe. These boys, probably children of the local residents and shopkeepers, were playing some game of chance (and judging from their demeanor, actually gambling), but I didn’t want to interrupt to ask what exactly it was they were playing.

February 2011: I took this photo in the Shanghai Museum in 2005. The museum displays were fascinating, of course, but I couldn’t help being distracted by this completely inexplicable little cartoon figure featured underneath the museum pieces: it had alien or animal eyes, painfully splayed fingers, and unnaturally curved extremities, and it was naked except for some kind of cap, bikini underwear, and unidentifiable footwear, with two conspicuous little dots for nipples. It was a complete mystery to me how such a thing came to be used in the museum. Who approved this idea? Was it done by some mid-level museum manager as a kind of in-joke? Was the museum’s collection on loan from a friendly (if a little strange) alien race who had preserved our past for us? It was one of those amusing, perplexing details that reminded me as a Westerner how strikingly different the Chinese sense of taste and propriety can be—in the West you might see figures like this in a children’s museum, but not on displays featuring world-class works of art and artifacts thousands of years old! With my Western biases, I can only shake my head and say, “Weird.”

fruit vegetable counteracts poison machine - CIT - small - 320 x 240 Shanghai - shikumen kitten - closeup - CIT - small - 320 x 240

March 2011: Amusing examples of Engrish or Chinglish [post temporarily unavailable] still abound in China. The most interesting ones occur when bad translations mix with cultural differences that defy easy explanation. I believe I came across this mysterious device in a shop in Shanghai. Even taking into account the clumsy translation, I’m not sure what a “fruit vegetable counteracts poison Machine” is, what it does, or why only the word “machine” is capitalized on the package. Can people use it to eat rotten or toxic fruits and vegetables? Do Chinese spies carry it around to detoxify themselves, using only whatever fruits and vegetables are handy, when enemy agents have slipped arsenic into their food? Whatever it is, it must have something to do with Traditional Chinese Medicine. A Google search for its Chinese name, “果蔬解毒机,” does generate over one million results (as of today), if you want to learn more about it. Personally, I’d rather let it remain an interesting mystery.

April 2011: This is a tiny kitten I came across in a Shanghai alley, perched high on a narrow ledge and apparently enjoying its own little patch of grass, while I was taking photos of a traditional “shikumen” district in the downtown area. (See my post entitled “Shanghai’s Disappearing Shikumen” [temporarily unavailable] for more photos and an explanation of what “shikumen” are.) When I noticed it up there, it seemed like such a precarious place for something so fragile and innocent, particularly in the midst of an urban environment fraught with dangers for such small trusting creatures. No doubt my all-too-human tenderness was misguided, however, as I’m sure that millions of callow Shanghai kittens quickly learn to prosper in that perilous city. Anyway, I wrote a haiku (originally a Chinese form of poetry, I believe) to go with the photo:

Kitten on the edge
Small patch of urban ledge-grass
Precarious life

Shanghai - deranged mannequins - CIT - small - 320 x 233
A strange window display finds immortality on the Internet. How could anyone be “overstocked”
on something so awesome?

May 2011: This month’s photo is one of innumerable jaw-droppingly (or at least double-takingly) random sights I’ve come across while exploring the vast human particle accelerator known as Shanghai. As you can imagine, in a city with that many options for shoppers, to be successful you have to find a way to stand out. This shop certainly got my attention with its mannequins, which are not only cutely cartoonish or disturbingly psychotic, depending on your point of view, but also used in an inventive way: ostensibly, the sole purpose of mannequins is to be an inconspicuous display device for items of clothing, but clearly the primary function of these particular mannequins is akin to that of the wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube men used at American car dealerships. Otherwise, why would some of them be naked? Well, here’s some free advertising and attention for you, whoever you are—too bad I can’t remember exactly where I took this, or what exactly you’re selling, or what the name of your store is. (It does appear to be across the street from “Jun,” though.)

Our Random Discovery Photos of the Month will resume next week with a new photo for September. Stay tuned!

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