Cruising Around Lijia

I sometimes forget how large Wujin actually is. Most people know the area typically as Hutang and the College Town, but there is more to it than just that. Recently, I took an bike ride to Lijia 礼嘉镇 which is roughly about 12 kilometers from Changzhou University if you are going south and east. The 320 bus swings out this way. So, what is out here? Keep in mind this was an unplanned trip. This was the “point my bike in that direction and see what’s there“ sort of thing.

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This can be easily described as small town China. Still, the central shopping area was quite busy. While stopping here, I checked Baidu Maps if there was anything historical nearby. That lead me here.

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I got chased by a dog, twice. Eventually, I found what I was looking for, and I survived without getting bitten. What I was looking for was behind the above buildings.

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This is 王氏宗祠,or The Wang Family Ancestral Hall. Most time, when I find these places, they are closed to the public. I ran into another up the road a few kilometers …

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This one was 何氏大宗祠,or The He Family Great Ancestral Hall. Like it’s counterpart, seemed closed to the public. However, this building had large tomb nearby.

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Because I wasn’t careful in conserving battery power, my bike clunked out when I hit downtown, on my way back to Xinbei. In trying to figure a few things out, I ended up consulting the town’s Baike encyclopedia page once I finally got home. Turns out, I might have missed something. That just means instead of going there on a whim next time, I should do something new and different and actually make more of a concrete plan.

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Silver Thread Noodles 银丝面红汤

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When I lived in Wujin, I used to ask my college students for recommendations about what was truly “local” Changzhou food. Most of them didn’t know what to say because 1) their English levels were so low and 2) most of them didn’t come from Changzhou. So, I used to get some silly answers like “Go to the top floor of Injoy.” One day, a friend brought me to Yinsi Noodles. Eventually, I was handed a bowl of noodles, and that became my first exposure to Changzhou’s food.

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That was more than a couple of years ago, now. Recently, I returned to Yinsi and tried the same dish. Only, I went to a different location. This cafeteria style restaurant is a prolific chain with locations all over the city. It serves a variety of non-local dishes that can be easily found elsewhere.

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So, if that is the case, what is so special about this place? A very cheap 5 RMB bowl of noodles.

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The dish’s name is actually shared with the eatery. Yinsi Noodles in Chinese is 常州银丝面 chángzhōu yín sī miàn. The actual above noodle soup is 银丝面红汤  yín sī miànhóng tāng. The literal translation would be “silver thread noodles red soup.” The characters 银丝 refers to the actual noodles themselves. According to Baidu’s version of Wikipedia, the name comes from how the ingredients in the dough results in very white noodles.  The “red soup” comes from the broth base, which is made with soy sauce. The result is a slightly salty taste that never becomes too much.

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You can also add a few things to the soup to customize the flavor a little more. If you look closely at the above, you’ll notice I chopped up a meatball and mixed it in. So, what else can I say?

This dish has been part of Changzhou culture for nearly 100 years. However, one should clarify one thing: only the recipe is that old. The current chain of Yinsi cafeterias doesn’t date back that far. The original shop, from all those decades ago, is also gone and lost to history. It used to be in what would become the Nandajie area of downtown.

 

Unassuming Qingshan

Typically, when one mentions “half naked woman riding a dragon,” one might either thinking 1980’s heavy metal album covers or fantasy mass market paperback covers. Dungeons and dragons and role playing games might also be involved in that thought process. If you image search “half naked woman riding a dragon” on Google, you might get the following results. I sort of did.

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This is, of course, dragons in a western context.  Turns out, it can be more of cross-cultural idea in art. In Changzhou, there is a stone mural of depicting the same thing.

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In this case, the woman is holding what looks to be a shiny orb. This is likely a flaming pearl, which in some Asian cultures can be associated with spiritual energy. A lot of depictions of Eastern dragons come with some sort of pearl references. All of this is lore and mythology that, quite honestly, I need to learn more about. The above picture had me intrigued partly because it was in an unassuming park that I have passed by for years but never took the time to actually walk around in.

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The public space is Qingshan Zhuang 青山庄. It’s actually part of the ancient canal network that has been part of Changzhou for thousands of years. The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal flows into into the city and splits into what can be described as a series of offshoots, tributaries, and a moat-and-wall complex around what used to be ancient Changzhou. In the above photo, you have the characters 北塘 běi táng. This is the part of that canal network that splits off of the central city canal circular and heads north.

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A good portion of this canal is adjacent to Jinling Road, but it’s at the point where that road forks into two one way roads downtown. This is why, for example, the 302 bus route from Wujin to Xinbei is different from it’s course from Xinbei to Wujin when going south.

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Qingshan Zhuang, as a public green space, is actually split into two. There is part that straddles the Beitang Canal (where the half naked dragon rider can be found), and then there is the other part across the busy street. It’s mostly a small public space with benches.  There are also a few bits of public art here, too.

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Here we have a primate eating something oblong. Mangos are oblong. They are also quite delicious, so my personal interpretation and title would be “Monkey Eating a Mango.”

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I am not going to venture a guess as to the meaning of this.

At anyrate, Qingshan Zhuang is definitely not one of Changzhou’s major or culturally significant spaces. For many of us, it’s just something we have passed by on a bus while going someplace else.
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Soupy Blood and Guts

“Why do Americans eat potatoes with nearly everything? It’s not right!” A Chinese teaching colleague blinked at me a few times. “I mean, when I lived in the US, I grew to hate potatoes at first and never wanted to look at them again. Eventually, I realized I had no choice and just learned to like them.”

I smiled. “First, I don’t know why. Second, a question. Why do lots of Chinese people always eat rice with their meals?”

This colleague then laughed. “OK. Fair point.”

This conversation happened many years ago. I lived in Wujin at the time. There is, however, a reason why I still remember this exchange. When a person is actively trying to assimilate into a foreign culture, two of the most immediate challenges are language and food. My colleague essentially was saying “I had to learn to like potatoes if I ever was to appreciate American food.” There is something similar that occurs to some westerners when they move to China. Some might find a few Chinese dishes culturally offensive due to organ meat and animal parts they are not used to. To appreciate Chinese food, sometimes, one has to turn these cultural sensitivities off.

I recently did this when some Chinese friends invited me out to lunch. They had a “free” coupon for a place called 就犟才好 jiù jiàng cái hǎo. It’s relatively new and on one of the upper levels of Injoy / Wuyue Plaza downtown. Actually, it may be occupying the space that used to be home to Summer and then a Vietnamese pho noodle shop. Alright then, so it’s new. What’s the culturally challenging part? It specializes 毛血旺 máo xuè wàng. Also, I quickly learned that when you feed those three characters in Baidu Translate, you get some hilarious Chinglish.

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No, mao xue wang is not hairy blood. No strand, root, or follicle of hair is involved! This is one of those instances where it’s best to write the name in Pinyin without tone markers and call that the dish’s English name. Okay, so what is it?

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It’s a soup originally from Chongqing. Oh, and by the way, it’s extremely spicy. The above photo was taken from a soup that had been intentionally toned down at my request. So, instead of “extremely spicy,” it was just “very, very spicy.” I can’t imagine how mao xue wang in it’s natural, highly nuclear state would make me weep and sob with each bite. Spicy red peppers are not culturally challenging. What is? The two signature ingredients.

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Tripe! This is hardly the first time I have eaten animal stomach. That is just merely the cost of living in China for years and trying to make friends with the locals. However, I have always struggled on how to describe tripe’s flavor. So, I consulted a fellow foodie — who is a rather intrepid and fearless gastronaut (inside joke). He said, “I don’t know. Tripe has always been more about its chewy texture than it’s flavor.” Right, he is. So, what’s the other challenging ingredient in mao xue wang?

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Blood! Congealed blood shows up in a lot of Chinese cuisine. Once you get past the very American icky ick ick gross! factor, it basically tastes like a slightly metalic tofu. One of the greater things about mao xue wang is the other ingredients. This soup can be customized, but it typically also has seafood in it.

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You can find shrimp, squid, fish, vegetables floating or submerged in this soup. So, if you are out to lunch with Chinese friends, and you don’t want to eat blood and guts, simply pick out the stuff you do like. This restaurant offers a variety of side dishes. One of those was very welcome to my inner American.

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Cheesy potatoes! Oh, what a comfort food and an emotional crutch while eating adventuresome! At any rate, did I enjoy the totality of my lunch at 就犟才好 jiù jiàng cái hǎo? Yes. Would I eat there again? Also yes, but with one caveat. This is the sort of place that you share with other people. It’s not meant for solo dining. It’s more of a communal experience, and the restaurant itself caps tables at four people and no more than that.

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While the place is relatively new, it has seemed to drawn a crowd. This might mean, depending on when you visit, there could be a bit of a wait to be seated.

Searching for Wujin’s Train Station

Question: In the Changzhou Prefecture, how many train stations are there?

Answer: Two? Changzhou Station and Changzhou North?

Wrong!

Answer: Three? Changzhou Station, Changzhou North, and Qishuyan?

Wrong again!

The keywords in the question are “Changzhou Prefecture.” So, that includes the city of Liyang to the south. They have high speed rail on a different route to Shanghai. So, while they have a station, you can’t actually take the train from Changzhou to Liyang. If you are using public transportation, the only option is a three hour bus ride. So, the answer is likely more around “four.”

I thought about this because I once tried writing trivia questions for Quiz Night at OK Koala. However, some of the questions in my music section seemed to revolve too much around the post-rock bands Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mount Zion.

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Godspeed’s most recent album. Think bleary instrumental rock that also uses violins and cellos. It’s the perfect soundtrack to writing a memoir about overcoming a midlife crisis (which I have been doing a lot of, recently). I was also listening to this while writing this post.

 

While they are currently my favorite bands, I realized that much of my quiz reveled in needless obscurity only I would likely know, and so I never finished it. I did want to fact check one thing, however.

 

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Apparently, Wujin has a train station. A Chinese friend, a few years ago, told me that she grew up near it. So, I decided to see if I can find it. The other issue is this: Baidu Maps can sometimes not be trusted. I have spent a lot of time traipsing through empty fields looking for “Martyr’s Memorials” that simply didn’t exist. As for Baidu, the app claimed it was a long-but-straight-forward trip.

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Roughly, 35.5 kilometers from my apartment in Xinbei’s Huai De Ming Yuan housing estate to a part of southern Wujin that is actually closer to the city limits with Yixing than it is Changzhou’s city center. Much of the trip took me along Heping / Changwu Road. (The name changes, once you cross the bridge into Wujin). For the most part, it was simple ride even after I turned off of Changwu Road. Until….

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I ran into some construction. These shipping containers I think functioned as like a makeshift foreman’s offices. It was completely blocking the road. I nearly gave up, but if you notice off to the right, you can actually see a train. So, I looked to see if there was a narrow path around. There was. This was on the other side.

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I thought the rest was about simple. However….

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The building I suspected of being the train station obviously was not. There is another thing to consider. There are plenty of narrow farm roads in the area. I tried to stay off them, but I couldn’t help myself.

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My photo archive always needs more Chinese scarecrows!

Essentially, vineyards make up a large part of this area. These are likely not wine grapes, as they look a lot like the type I see sold along the side of the road. I don’t mean that in a bad way, either. That’s just to say: it’s a local agricultural product. That was reinforced once I actually found the train station.

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One vineyard had been harvesting it’s crop and loading it onto a freight truck. Well, what about Wujin’s train station? Don’t get your hopes up.

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It looked pretty abandoned. That got me thinking, though. What about the train parked there? My guess is this: if this place is used at all, it’s for freight only. It is so far removed from an actual population center that it makes absolutely no sense for passenger traffic.

As for my proposed trivia question. How many train stations in Changzhou? Technically, five as of this counting. However, this place in Wujin is so obscure, it almost doesn’t count. There is a way around that: reword the question. How many high speed rail stations are there in the Changzhou Prefecture? The answer to that is still four, I think. Changzhou Station, Changzhou North, Qishuyan, and Liyang.

Unfinished, Other Worldly in Xinbei

“Once you’ve seen one temple, you have pretty much seen all of them.”

This is a comment that I have heard on and off from several people over the years. While I disagree, I will concede one point. The style of both Buddhist and Taoist temples in this area share a lot of the same stylistic points. A lot of the statuary can either be vibrant or colorful, or they can be based on different shades of gold. So, when you find something that deviates from that pattern, it really stands out. Recently, I did. In fact, it looks like no other temple I have ever seen in Changzhou or elsewhere in Southern Jiangsu.

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Xiushan Temple 修缮寺 has the standard paint job and architecture of other temples. So, the strangeness of the place is on the interior, not the exterior. And it hits you immediately when you step through the front door.

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The religious statuary is all unfinished. For example, some of them have been sculpted in what looks to be clay. However, something seemed to happen to halt the installation process. Then, over the course of time — and due to heat — the statuary began to form wide cracks. This has lead to a seemingly unearthly, somewhat otherworldly look.

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This has lead to some wear-and-tear issues that leads to somewhat creepy-looking damage — like a jawless demon.

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These are just but a few of the statues. A majority of what can be seen has been crafted from wood. These are the statues that normally wouldn’t be painted. Rather, they would be plated in gold or otherwise gold-colored.

 

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However, some of them also have their own issues that has caused damage. Like the clay statues, cracks have developed.

 

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These are not simple fissures, but cracks wide enough you can see through.

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Some of these “cracks” are necessary. Not all of the pieces were carved from a singular piece of wood. Some parts were made sparately and then jigsaw-puzzled together. Take a close look at the above photo, and you will see that. Even if the statues were not damaged, the natural, unfinished look of the wood adds other elements I have not seen at other temples.

 

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In each of these statues, you can see the striped grains in the wood. You can also see the some of the circular knots. It’s just two more things that adds intricacy of something that already has intricate detail and weather damage.

So, what exactly happened here?

 

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This place is open to the public. It looks like it is being used as a local place of worship. I am just assuming, but I am basing the deduction off of the places to kneel, the sound system, and a few other things. There is a poster by the door of the main hall. From what I can piece together using Baidu Translate on my phone, the funding for Xiushan Temple seemed to have fallen short. Some of the signage seems to solicit donations.

Either way, visiting this place is a profoundly unique experience. It’s in northern Xinbei — on the way to the industrial ports alongside Changzhou’s portion of the Yangtze River. One can take a bus out this area; the 27 and 40 come to mind, but it also involves getting off and traveling down a narrow, but paved, country road. While it is open, there still seems to be active construction with workers. In that regard, it will be interesting to return here in the future to see what eventually changes. While I do hope the people running these temples can find a way to keep their statues from crumbling, part of me hopes they find a way to keep this the one-of-a-kind place that it currently is.

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For Would Be Philatellators

“I am into philately,” my father once said. “I like to philatellate.”

I squinted my eyes at him, sternly.”You like to whip people?”

“No.” He rolled his eyes. “Rich, that’s flagellate.

“Oh, got you,” I said. “So, you are a philatellator!”

He sighed. “What is wrong with you? The right word is philatelist.” He pointed at me. “And furthermore…”

“Oh, who cares?” My mom interjected. She looked at my dad. “A grown man obsessed with stickers! Besides, I’ve had to listen to you two invent new gibberish words all dinner.”

“They’re postage stamps, not …”

“Paul, you are talking about little pieces of paper with glue on the back.” She took a sip of her Diet Coke. “I pass out stuff like that to my students when they do well on tests or behave themselves.”

“Jeez, I can’t win for trying.” My father stood from the dinner table. “You know, I am going to go to my office right now and philatellate some.”

And by that, he went to go play with his stamps. It’s hobby that has engrossed my dad for his entire lifetime. Given the international scope of his career with the US federal government, his extremely large collection spans the entire globe. The above conversation happened when I was a senior in high school. On and off, I have always talked about stamps with him, and it seems I am the only of his three kids that was remotely interested in doing so. Ever since I moved to China, I thought it was only fitting that I help round out his collection.

Recently, I sought out some new Chinese stamps for him, but not because I am a dutiful son. Actually, I can be quite a moron, and recently, that was most definitely the case. Because of a recently planned trip to Buffalo, my father took me to JFK International in New York City in a rental car. After he dropped me off and left, I realized that I still had his regular car keys. Basically, I accidentally stole his regular house keys and had no way to get them back to him — other than mailing them express from Changzhou once I returned. Essentially, I screwed up royally, and there is no way to really say “I’m sorry” to someone than to give them something that genuinely excites them. For my dad, that’s stamps.

So, that brings up a question. If you are a stamp collector and you live in Changzhou, how do you go about adding to your collection? China does not have stamp stores the same way America and Europe does. The first option is to go to an antique market.

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There are a few scattered across the city. One of the biggest ones — across from Hongmei Park — recently got bulldozed. So, the defacto go-to place is now behind the Christian church downtown.  However, there are challenges when shopping at places like this.

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There is the issue of the language barrier, but that can be fixed by having a Chinese friend tag along. Antique markets are usually better for experienced collectors, and this is a place where you can find old themed albums or issues from years ago. In short, not only do you need to be able to communicate, but you also need to know what you are looking for. There is another option for those who are wading into Chinese philately for the first time. It’s the actual Postal Bank of China.

This is a place where you can not only buy stamps, mail letters, and ship packages, but you can also open a savings or checking account. It’s both a post office and a bank. However, the branch offices scattered throughout the city are not really suited for stamp collectors. There is only one place that actually geared toward philatelists. Its English name says it all.

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China Philately. This place has all the services of a China Post branch, but they also have display cases of all the recently published collectible sets. As it turns out, stamp collecting has some aspects unique to China. I say this not as a collector myself, but one who has known one my entire life. Micro collections, published as brochures, seem to be more of a thing here than it is in the west. Take this, for example.

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This is a two-fold brochure celebrating Xuan Zang. He’s the Chinese monk who traveled to India to find Buddhist scripture and bring it back to the Middle Kingdom. Famously, this story is told in Journey to the West, a classic that also stars the Monkey King.

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Once you open the brochure, you see two sheets of four protected by plastic holders. Since these micro collections act like brocures, there is usually some explanatory text and biographies of the artists involved. As a collectible, it’s not just the stamps themsleves that make this important. The packaging itself is also collectible. So, this isn’t really something where you’d pull the stamps out and put them into a separate album. It’s best to just leave it alone is one complete philatelic item. And that gets into another thing my father has told me, after looking at the stamps I have provided to him in the past.

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Chinese stamps are colorful, artistic, and look like a lot of care and attention have been put into their look and design. After all, roughly about one third of global stamp market is made up of Chinese investors. To put it another way, one third of all stamp collectors are Chinese. It’s a big thing in the Middle Kingdom.

To be honest, I am tempted to start collecting myself. My dad would joke that it would have taken him 44 years to convince me that this wasn’t a foolish hobby. Sure, because I have spent much of my adult life talking to my father about postage stamps (I have the collector bug, but it usually was comic books and punk rock vinyl records), I might know more than the average newb. However, for the time being, I think I will just stick with China Philately. I can walk in and point at stuff I want to look at without having to ask complicated questions.

Changzhou has only one of these stores. It’s located dowtown and across the street from the Jiuzhou Shopping mall.

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Wujin’s Lakeside Spire

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Late July and early August tend to be Changzhou’s hottest times of the year. Sometimes, it can get so bad, some may not want to venture out of their homes at all and will opt to hang out in front of an air conditioner on full blast. On the other hand, some locals and some expats from hot climate countries may actually like this time of year and may want to get out and about — and to that, I say to each their own. If one does want to get out, Gehu / West Tai Lake may be a possible destination. While not much has changed in this part of Wujin over the years, there is something interesting to consider.

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The lakefront around Gehu / West Tai has been undergoing a slow drip-drip pace of development. However, the first time I ever came out here a few years ago, access to the above tower was blocked off. It seemed like a project still under construction.

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Now, it’s open to the public. A visitor can pay up to 20 RMB to go to up to two different floors. The above photo depicts the uppermost cafe. The floor directly beneath is more of a viewing platform with telescopes. Here, one can get a good look not only at the lake itself, but the surrounding development.

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As has been noted elsewhere on this blog, Gehu / West Tai is still not the tourist destination and resort the city likely has in its long term plans. Still, there are a few things to see out here, and this tower is one of them. The best way to get to the lakefront involves taking the B15 BRT bus in Wujin, near the Yancheng zoo and amusement park area.

A Love for Liangpi

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Image courtesy of this blog. https://wifemothereventplanner.com/2013/03/07/big-mac-without-the-mac/

 

“Can I have a Whopper with Cheese, only hold the meat patty.” I crossed my arms. “I would also like …”

“Excuse me.” The Morgantown, West Virginia, Burger King cashier shot me a look that actively mingled confusion with disgust. “What did you just order?”

“Whopper with cheese, minus the meat.”

“So, um, you don’t want a burger without the actual burger?”

“Exactly.”

“You just want condiments and cheese in a bun?”

“Yep.” I nodded slightly. “And fries. I want French fries, too – with a Diet Coke.”

“Um, okay.” She tapped the order into her register.

I saw her mouth the word weirdo under her breath while slightly shaking her head. I really didn’t care. This whole scenario played out multiple times during the 1990’s and my years as a university student in Appalachia. This wasn’t the first time I ordered a tomato, pickle, onion, and cheese sandwich from a fast food joint. It wasn’t the last, either.

You see, I used to be a vegetarian. The reasons are best saved for another time, but in retrospect, they were more out of punk rock vanity than concerns over my health.  I was a very bad vegetarian who consistently made poor dietary choices. Instead of evaluating the nutritional content of my food, I just ate a lot of eggs, steamed vegetables, cheese, and faux meat. Not Dogs? Yup, always in a bun and usually smothered in coleslaw. Fake ham? Absolutely! Especially if I wrapped it around a breaded cheese stick and dipped it into a barbecue sauce. Most of my diet consisted of easily microwaved GMO soy-based foods like Morning Star Farms. In short, I ate a lot of junk food.

One day, I woke up and realized that the counter cultural idealism of my twenties didn’t make for healthy living. Actually, I realized I was a clueless idiot. So, I stopped being a vegetarian who used to call strawberry ice cream dinner, and I eased myself back into sensible, balanced meat consumption. Fish without bones first, followed by poultry, pork, and beef. Now, many people can argue that I have many dreadful habits – rampant neurosis, heavy drinking, saying I am going to go to the gym while never going, and incessant chain smoking, for example.  Correcting all of that is an ongoing work in progress. It is work. It is in progress. I promise.  And, while I am no longer a vegetarian and never will be one again, I still have the upmost respect for people who have made that choice and know how to do it the right way. I also still enjoy eating proper vegetarian and vegan foods from time to time.

I know the challenges that come with it, especially when you are travelling and cannot cook for yourself. I also know that maintaining that lifestyle choice in China is not particularly easy. Being a vegan here is even worse. Sometimes, even a vegetable-only dish has been cooked in or is swimming in pork fat. Noodle soups are even more deceptive. Do you know what was used to make the base broth? Can you be absolutely sure when you are starving, in a Chinese city you don’t recognize due to travel, and walk into a restaurant? Can you ask a restaurant owner if something has an animal by-product in it without coming off like a complete jerk who is using his phone as a translator? Sometimes, that is easier said than done.

I thought about this while between classes at Hohai University, recently. There are plenty of small restaurants between that school’s west gate and Xinbei Wanda Plaza. Like all eateries, some of them survive and some do not last six months. Needless to say, I eat dinner in this area a lot because it’s right next to where I work. It was in one of these places where I stared at a plate of noodles and realized I was eating something totally vegan without realizing it. It was a dish called 凉皮 liángpí.

Yes, the two quail eggs are not exactly vegan friendly, but they can be picked out, and most basic liangpi dishes do not have them.
Yes, the two quail eggs are not exactly vegan friendly, but they can be picked out, and most basic liangpi dishes do not have them.

 

The Chinese for that literally translates as “cold skin.” Yeah, I know. It sounds rather disgusting – as if you are eating something that has been flayed off of a person or animal. Only, it isn’t that. In my experience, the character 皮usually refers to a sheet of something very thin in texture. For example, 豆腐皮 dòufu pí literally translates as “tofu skin” and is a common add-on ingredient in hotpot places and other restaurants that allow you to customize.

So, what exactly is liangpi? It’s a cold and wide rice noodle served in vinegar. Sometimes, chili oil can be added to spice things up. Typically, shredded cucumber, spongy tofu, and crunchy peanuts are involved. Since it is served cold, it’s usually best ate during hot weather. This dish originally comes from Shaanxi, but it is now so popular and widespread, it can be found nearly anywhere in small restaurants or as street food. It’s also relatively cheap. So, for vegans and vegetarians alike, this is a potentially a quick and easy lunch choice.

However, since liangpi has spread all over Changzhou, there are multiple variations and a lot of them have meat added. Some of the these options can include…

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Lean beef.

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Shredded chicken.

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Ground pork.

Really, cold rice noodles are an extremely versatile dish — from it’s vegan friendly base to just about anything the shop in question likes to add to fill out their menu board. This is why I am not really providing a map location. This dish really is that widespread throughout the city. However, there was one place where, between my Hohai classes, I had a blast from the past.

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This is 农少爷 nóng shàoyé. It focuses more on the Xian variety of liangpi. It recently opened, and I see a lot of university students crammed in here during dinner and lunch rushes. Their “Chinese hamburger” sandwich 肉夹馍 ròu jiā mó is excellent. However, while exploring their menu over multiple days, I ran into this.

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It is 蔬菜夹馍 shūcài jiā mó — a bun stuffed with vegetables.Biting into this made me think of 20 years ago, during a different time and a different life. A time where I walked into Burger Kings and asked for a hamburger-without-actual-hamburgers. I was young with a huge vinyl record collection of punk rock and death metal albums with titles like Save for Your Doomed Future. If I could talk to that kid, I would tell him that his future — while having some devastating rock bottom moments — isn’t all that bad.

A Return to the Church that Wasn’t

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck … you should not be so quick to jump to conclusions.

–Cecil Palmer, Welcome to Night Vale

Welcome to Night Vale is a current podcast obsession of mine. It delivers fictitious radio news broadcasts from a small, dusty, and utterly insane American desert town. It’s a place where all conspiracy theories are true, and the fabric of reality unravels all the time. The laws of physics and objective reality just don’t work in Night Vale. For example, the above quote is actually a variation on this well known maxim:

If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and swims like a duck … it’s probably a duck.

That’s just pure logic. Only, Welcome to Night Vale gleeful turns stuff like that upside down. Just because something looks and sounds like a duck, Cecil is suggesting, doesn’t mean it really is a duck. You could be hallucinating. Your brain could be confused. You might be possessed by a ghost, and it’s distorting everything you see.  So, you might not be seeing the creature’s true nature — it could actually be, for example, not a duck but a psychotic octopus with a penchant for expensive silk neckties and large top hats. I made the well dressed octopus up myself, but it’s a fairly good example of the mind-bending silliness Welcome to Night Vale offers on a regular basis.

Image courtesy of Cincinati Magazine http://www.cincinnatimagazine.com/artsmindsblog/speak-easy-cecil-baldwin/
Image courtesy of Cincinati Magazine http://www.cincinnatimagazine.com/artsmindsblog/speak-easy-cecil-baldwin/

 

What does this have to do with Changzhou? Sometimes, I have recalled the above Cecil Palmer quote while wandering around the city. When you are a foreigner living in China, not everything is exactly what it seems. So, again, If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck … you should not be so quick to jump to conclusions. There is a perfect example of this at Gehu Lake in Wujin.

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This looks like a Christian church, right? Well, it actually isn’t if you go by what a Christian church actually is. I first found this place back in 2014 or 2015, I think. That was a long time before this blog existed. I wrote a lengthy essay about it for T-Guide, which was the precursor of the SupCZ Wechat channel and print magazine. So, if it’s not a church, then what exactly is it? It’s was built as a wedding hall. So, it’s a venue that can be rented. A potential visitor will not find regular Catholic masses or Protestant services here,  because it’s not a place of worship. There aren’t resident clergy here to privide spiritual advice or direction. To riff on Cecil Palmer: If it looks like a church, quacks like a church … you should not be so quick to jump to conclusions.

Well, that was several years ago. I recently returned to Gehu / West Tai Lake (two names for the same body of water). It wanted to see if anything had changed since I left Wujin for Xinbei. The answer is …

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No, not really. In 2018, the half built construction site next to the “Not a Church” looks exactly the same as it did in 2015. This was supposed to a themed plaza dedicated to the wedding industry. I don’t know the full story behind it, but it seems the funding dried up. But then again, what exactly do I know?  Not a lot. there really isn’t a lot of information about this place online. I did find this part a little funny.

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Notice the English part of the sign. I had been walking around this thing trying to peer into its windows for like fifteen minutes. I did the same back in 2015. The only difference, all these years later, is the sign and a bored security guard sitting by an open door to the building. I said, Ni Hao to the guard. He didn’t care. I noticed the “keep out” sign only while l was leaving.