on Pittsburgh

With an extra day off last weekend, and in the spirit of making America an ever more familiar place, I decided to Jeep my way over to the closest city I’ve never visited within a 300 mile radius – Pittsburgh – A river city to add to the list of others I admire – Washington, Paris, New York, Chicago. It’s always fun to just jump on the road and go. I didn’t really make any plans, and barely followed a map. I kept going north and west until signs started to say Pittsburgh. Arriving in a city by land creates a different experience than by air or sea. It’s as if you get to know the surrounding landscape more intimately, and feel like a more natural part of the environment when you arrive. I  parked downtown and got out and started walking. The first thing was coffee, then I walked …

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China, Final Images (A Million Hands)

Now for a bit I’m going to put away the camera. A girl is walking past with striped yellow and green socks, up to her knees, short purple shorts, and a pink sweater over a white hooded shirt. She has a brown sac over her shoulder and her hair in pigtails with a pink clip thing shaped like a flower. Now a man slightly balding with hair combed back, in grey trousers and a blue shirt, flipping his hands as he walks. Now a Blue Mercedes Benz drives by smelling like diesel. I hear the door shut after it goes around the corner. A man is playing a wooden flute instrument, and I hear the notes and know they are the same notes of music everywhere, the tones are the same but he plays a Chinese sounding song which is very nice. Earlier a girl in a yellow shirt squatted …

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Last Stop, Beijing

My last day in China, in Beijing now. Went to the Forbidden City this morning. Beijing plays the “capital” role well and reminds me of Washington with its orderly traffic, wide streets, leafy trees, restrained architecture. Getting into the city from the airport looked very similar to coming in from Dulles, roads well lit and paved, visible signs, decent driving. It feels like a different country here, not the same one that Xi’an or Shanghai exists in. The difference between Beijing and the rest of the country seems more than between Washington and the rest of the USA. In the airport I was previsualizing my return home. It felt strange. I’ve gotten used to eating Chinese food every day, with chopsticks, and having people around all the time. Even in rural China, it seems there are always people around. I’m not sure what’s next for me as I sit here …

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Airborne Observations

Flying to Beijing now. Last night on the dunes at one point I was wondering about sand damage to my camera, worried. I started thinking about what the camera’s purpose is, how it alters the memory of things. I tried to take a ‘mental’ picture of the scene. The camera is just a tool, a physical thing someone else created that it supposed to enhance memory, but can any external thing influence memory than the brain and memory itself? The only reason I’m still thinking about this weird and abstract concept is because of seeing the dead woman today. I didn’t have a chance to take a photo, but if I had one, would I want a photographic memory of that? It was a visceral experience, not exactly pleasant, but definitely something that will stay in my memory forever, maybe even better without a photo. The fact that I had …

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Word Painting

On the road from Zhongwei to the airport, going to describe as much of what I see out the window as possible: Women in visors walking in a field collecting something, putting in small plastic bags. Big red travel bus. Arch over entry driveway made of steel beams, diamond replica at apex, stone sculpture outside. Man on motorcycle. Main street of small town. Large brown dirt field filled with power lines. One story brick lots, with broken windows, some with bamboo doors. Irrigated field with crops. Blue truck with open bed, contents covered by tarp. Modern SUV. Woman holding baby outside doorway, next to drying laundry. Girl in yellow uniform sweeping lot of gas station with large primitive broom. Corn field. Woman riding bicycle with boy sitting on backseat. White wall with phone numbers spray painted on in red. Road is turning shitty, van bouncing alot. Small brick hovels, probably …

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In Zhongwei

n Zhongwei now after 3 nights in Xi’an. I was expecting Zhongwei to be smaller, more village/rural like, but what I’ve seen is more similar to a moderate city. I didn’t write much in Xi’an because I was busy enjoying it. By this time next week I will have returned home. Xi’an grew on me after an ugly first impression, the hectic train ride and mob scene at the station, and hazardous walk through a construction site to reach the hotel. But I spent some time alone, walking the streets of the Muslim quarter and the shopping streets, and then rode around the city wall on a bike and saw the new city existing beyond and in harmony with the old, and it struck me as a giant place, built on purpose, carefully, over thousands of years. In Xi’an I tried to think of Americans from the perspective of the …

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Xi’an and Cinema (Universal language)

The cough which started on the final day of the Yangtze cruise has persisted and is duly irritating me today. In the Chinese media cases of swine flu are zealously reported, and any Chinese official would probably diagnose me as positive as soon as looking at me. I look forward to returning to clean skies and natural air at home which is surely the cure I need. Upon arriving in Xi’an we checked in at the City Hotel close to the center of town. There are apparently 8 million people in this city but I have only seen what looks like one or two. The hotel is in the middle of a construction zone, walking out to the street feels like it should require a hard hat. After an “orientation” sprint yesterday evening our guide Merrick dropped us near the Muslim quarter, which was filled with stalls selling food and …

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Toward Xi’an

Hemingway said it was best to start writing first thing in the morning, I think because the compulsion continues for the rest of the day. So here I sit in the bumpy van on the way to the train station in Luoyang scribbling away. There were 2 news stories about China on the internet last night, one that they had approved a vaccine for swine flu, and the other that they were stabbing people with syringes in Urumqi. A very complicated country. The last two nights, I had dreams about playing basketball with Shaquille O’Neil in China, and about eating a snake. “Dream is destiny?” I don’t know. The hotel in Luoyang was nice, and already we are leaving. Last night we went to “Snack street,” where dozens of food stalls lined the street under hanging red lanterns, picturesque scene, but not so appetizing after fasting all day, so instead …

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The Longmen Grottoes

In between Shaolin and Luoyang, we have stopped at a pretty place on the Yi River. Thousands of Buddha sculptures are carved in caves on the cliff face, many of which were damaged during the cultural revolution. A temple also sits at the top of a long staircase on the hill, a very scenic spot where my camera battery died.  A famous Chinese poet lived there and is buried in an elaborate garden graveyard beside the temple. One of his poems said something about living there peacefully in nature with a shelf of books and sweet tasting wine. Dozens of little Chinese shops line the exit road selling cheap souvenirs, a large vase selling for 30 Y interested me but I’ve no way to get it home. I bought 2 t-shirts from the hotel in Shaolin before leaving for the cost of 50Y, less than 10USD. Tomorrow morning we take …

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Shaolin 2

Leaving Shaolin today, already. I just went out this morning, about 6:30 am. To take pictures of the students doing their morning exercises. After a few shots someone started waving a finger at me so I moved away. I walked past a few classrooms where the students sat in dim light facing a teacher at the chalkboard and imagined it would have been a great photo, but didn’t have the courage to walk in the room and cause a disruption. Later the groups were marching back from the exercise ground and I stood inches away from them, hundreds, staring as they marched past and shouted. I snapped only a few frames, one which I like quite a bit. Walking back to the hotel a few moments ago (which has signage indicating it is a ‘foreigner approved hotel’) I saw the Shaolin students squatting in the dusty alleyway, brushing their teeth …

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