China – Eclipse Day

Posted by Ted on Jul 21, 2009 in Travel

Another truism about pilgrimages is that one never knows what lessons they will learn along the way. A few that we learn again and again are to forego expectation, meet setbacks with creativity and grace, and to be content with what one is given.

We woke early this morning to an overcast sky. We ate a leisurely breakfast of congee, hard boiled eggs, and steamed buns, and walked out to the 100 Step Beach, and then along a beautiful walkway down to the southern tip of the island to the foot of the 33-meter high statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy to whom the island is devoted.

There was quite a crowd gathered in anticipation, wearing sun viewing glasses and burning large amounts of incense. We hooked up with a fellow eclipse-chaser from California and his family, and joined the assembled in sharing the special moment in a place of spiritual significance and serene beauty. The clouds remained thick, but allowed the occasional glimpse of a blazing crescent. Totality itself was completely obscured, but was no less magical. The world turned truly dark as night, the Bodhisattva illuminated from below. True to Chinese mythology, a Dragon came and ate the sun, only to be scared away by the beats of drums. While it may have been the longest eclipse of the century, the five and a half minutes were over all too quickly, and the world brightened again. While we saw none of the totality, the experience was well worth the expense and effort.

Afterwards, we explored the temple and monastary, relaxing and enjoying the ocean breeze. We walked back up the eastern path, past the purple bamboo forest, and stopped for lunch just as the first torential rain of the day fell outside. When it abated, we left and walked through the grounds surrounding Puji Temple and to the local hospital where we barely negotiated the prescribing of Chinese herbs to help with my insomnia, only to get stuck waiting out another torrent of rain.

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China – Day 3

Posted by Ted on Jul 21, 2009 in Travel

The paths one takes on a pilgrimage are often difficult. Plans fail, expected roads are found to be blocked, and tricksters mislead you. This has always been, and must be so. A pilgrimage is supposed to be out of the ordinary. They are supposed to be hard. It is, in part, overcoming the obstacles to finally reach the spiritual destination which provides a sense of accomplishment. If it were easy, one might feel that they cheated, that they did not truly deserve the reward.

Today was such a journey. We left our hostel after breakfast, having checked the train times to Ningbo online. Of course, we discovered that our information had led us to the wrong train station only after there was no way we could get a cab to the Hangzhou East station in time. Two hours were lost waiting for the next train.

The ride through the countryside was lovely, past verdant rolling hills, farms, and small towns. Being the only white people in our car, we were a source of fascination for the old man and young teen sitting across from us. Hungry, we took advantage of a passing food cart and enjoyed the best ramen noodles that either of us have ever had.

We arrived in Ningbo worried about making the last ferry to the island, being stuck within reach of our destination. Somewhat lost and stressed, we were saved. As luck, divine intervention, or simple business opportunity would have it, we were approached by a kind gentleman who simply said “Putuoshan?”. Clearly enough non-asian pilgrims come through Ningbo for just such a need. For 300 yuan, he escorted us into a cab and to the ferry terminal, purchasing our tickets for us. He made a good 100 yuan off of us, and it was well worth it.

Finally on our guaranteed way, we settled into our bus ride to the fast ferry dock and onto a packed ferry to Putuoshan. We watched the sun set over the Zhoushan archipelago of lush green islands, the waterways filled with Chinese tankers. We passed by container cranes, similar to the familiar ones in Oakland, but red and perhaps even more of them. While ours at home mostly unload, these surely do more loading, spreading ‘Made in China’ goods throughout the world.

We finally arrived at Putuoshan under a clouded sky, and were assailed by hawkers of lodging. After giving in to one of them, we were taken to a nearby hotel where we were lead down decrepit, smoke filled halls to a musty room with 3 single beds and then to a better room at a higher price. My gut said to leave, so we took our money and went back to the dock to try our luck again. We found a similarly priced option, in a nicer location, with a more straightforward management. We enjoyed a dinner on the outside patio of crab that we’d picked out ourselves, fried rice, and the most amazing, yet simple, Chinese cabbage and mushrooms.

Already, we feel that we have achieved our goal. Even if the morning weather obscures the eclipse, we are on a beautiful island in the East China sea, and that is reward enough.

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China – Day 1 & 2

Posted by Ted on Jul 19, 2009 in Travel

Shanghai is under construction. They are busily preparing for their ‘Expo 2010’. Everywhere there are cranes and construction crews tearing up and rebuilding roads.

We landed at Pudong airport a little after 8p on Saturday night and took the high speed (301 kph!) maglev train to the outskirts of town before getting and overpriced cab ride the rest of the way to the Bund. Our first two nights were at the Westin, and we were upgraded to a suite. We crashed the first night, and woke up the next morning and took advantage of the “best Sunday brunch in Shanghai.”. At $130, it was even almost worth it. Not only was the food varied and exceptional, complete with free-flowing champagne, but the entertainment was spectacular. The best was first – a top notch orchestra, seated on electric blue steps, playing beautiful classical music. They were followed by dancers, a changing-mask performer, and parter acrobatics. 3 hours later, we took our leave and wandered the Bund and got harassed by a hawker until we took the boat ride he was offering. It was quite pleasant, and served as a lesson in saying yes, even when our automatic reaction would be to walk away.

Today started very early, so we took advantage of the opportunity to visit Yu Yuan before the crowds descended. It is a sprawling complex of shops and restaurants and gardens, in a traditional architecture style. We enjoyed dim sum, satisfying a yearning we’ve had for several months. We wandered through the gardens, which were filled with more dragonflies than either of us had ever seen.

Returning to the hotel, we found that we had missed our opportunity to get to Putuoshan, so we turned to plan B and hopped on a train to Hangzhou. It was a lovely and relaxing ride through towns and countryside. We had intended to go to Ningbo and stay the night, but found that we’d missed the last train once we’d gotten to Hangzhou. After failing plans C, D, E, and F, we are now at the West Lake Hostel, watching the sunset, proving that one just rolls with the changes until it all works out.

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China – Day 0

Posted by Ted on Jul 17, 2009 in Travel

We’re two hours out over the Pacific, with 9 hours to go until we reach Seoul. While we left San Francisco at 1p on Friday, we won’t reach our hotel in Shanghai until after 10p on Saturday.

As I exited the Embarcadero Bart station yesterday morning, I saw a crescent moon against a clear blue sky, framed by skyscrapers. Ever since it was full, the waning moon has been a countdown to the celestial alignment of the century. The total solar eclipse next Wednesday will be the longest in our lifetimes. The point of maximum totality, 200km off the coast of Japan, will be 6:49 seconds, which will not be exceeded until 2137.

Our preferred vantage point will be the small island of Putuoshan, home to one of the four sacred mountains of Buddhism. Even there we will be able to watch the sun be eclipsed by the moon for over five minutes. 400 times larger than the moon, the sun just so happens to be 400 times farther away from us, which is why they appear the same size in the sky. This extraordinary cosmic coincidence is what makes this magic possible.