The 59 to Mengcheng

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Riding the 59 public bus reminded me that Xinbei is way much larger than what your average expat may think. This is a route that begins at the downtown train station and terminates in Mengcheng. This village is so northwestern in Changzhou, the city boundary with Yangzhong is actually not that far away. It’s actually closer than Xinbei Wanda Plaza would be.

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While going north on Jinling, this line eventually turns west onto Hanjiang and eventually ends up on Huanghe Road for a long stretch. In the process, it passes through Xuejia and the many, many factories between that town and Luoxi — where Changzhou’s airport is located. However, it must be noted that the 59 is not really an effective means of transportation to the local airport, as it turns north before getting near enough to the terminal. Because of the heavy industrial presence along Huanghe Road, this bus can also become absolutely crammed with factory / plant commuters during rush hour.

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So, what exactly is in Mengcheng? On this visit, I didn’t find much. It’s essentially small town China on the far fringe of Changzhou.

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There is a very tiny public park with a semi decrepit building.

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There appeared to be one Christian church and two temples in the area. However, one of them looked very closed to the public, and the other I passed on the bus. It was too late in the day to hop off and take a look. The final ride today was at 6:15pm, and I didn’t want to get stranded in a place where getting a cab would be difficult.

From a foreigner’s perspective, the only real value of the 59 is if that person has business in Xuejia. This is a smaller urban center to the west of the greater Wanda / Dinosaur Park area. I know this because I once consulted with a language center near Xuejia’s KFC.

Recent Snowmen

In a thoroughly unscientific poll of one German guy, it hasn’t snowed this badly in Changzhou in at least ten years. For those of us who have lived in this city for awhile, it goes without saying. Some years, we don’t get any snow at all, and if we do, it’s just a dusting. In this regard, I liken Changzhou to a place like North Carolina. It’s so rare, that when it does happen, people freak out a little — unlike people in Maine, Michigan, or New Jersey, where blizzards of a least one meter of accumulation do occur. One of the more interesting things I found this snowstorm is this: people took to the streets and expressed their creativity in crafting snowmen. One could argue they rarely had the chance to do so over the past couple of years. Here are some snowmen I have run across over the past few days. Oh, and the creepiest one is at the end.

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Brightly Colored Mother’s Love

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Who says my heart of a grass seedling

Can ever repay her warm spring sun?

–Meng Jiao, from Traveler’s Song

Meng Jiao 孟郊 clearly loved and cared for his mother. The above lines — taken from this translation of “A Traveler’s Song” — convey that as do the rest of the poem. For a large part of his life, he refused to take the imperial exams, but he eventually relented once he reached middle age. A civil service job, he reasoned, would allow him to financially support her as she grew older.  This eventually led him to a ministerial position in Liyang — a city to the south that is part of Changzhou’s prefecture. There, he dithered around among streams and forests while composing poems.

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“A Traveler’s Song” (遊子吟) was one of those poems he wrote while living in Liyang. It’s a short bit of a verse. It speaks of a son about to set off to travel, and his mom is sewing his clothing for him before he leaves. The poem doesn’t mention where the son is going or how long he will be gone. It’s just the departure is impending, and that both the son and the mother will miss each other.

Generality can be a blessing and a curse in poetry. It largely depends on the linguistic skill of the poet in conveying emotion. This poem, in the variety of English language translations I have read, uses generality and vagueness rather well. It gives a reader just enough information while allowing them to read their own life into the lines.

For example, Meng Jiao’s poem remind me of my own mom. While I was in college in West Virginia, my parents still lived overseas — The Netherlands for a year, and then the UK until my father retired from the US Department of Defense. I came to visit for a few weeks every Christmas and New Years. Eventually, I would have to get back on the airplane and fly across the Atlantic. I wouldn’t see them again until summer, when they would come to the US to see my brother, sister, and myself. There was always talk of time and distance every time my Mom and I parted ways.  Of course, plenty of other readers around China and the rest of the world have had no problem understanding this poem. It is one of Meng Jiao’s most famous works.

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It is always interesting to see how a famous piece of literature transcends written text and takes on a life out in the world. “A Traveler’s Tale” is actually part of the decorative lanterns at Dinosaur Park in Xinbei. A large chunk of the colorful art on display have more generalized holiday themes. However, there is a portion close to Hehai Road that recreates Changzhou history.

I found this recently because a friend and I went on a stroll specifically to look at the lanterns and laugh at their gaudy silliness. We both sort of stopped and lingered at the Meng Jiao display, because, well, part of it looked a little creepy.

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At the time, we both didn’t know what we were looking at. The reddish marks on her face look a little like bruises. I didn’t quite know what to make about the black smudges around the both eyes. Now that I have had time to think about it, it’s the limitations of the medium when it comes to this sort of public art. Spring Festival lanterns easily look childish. The vibrant, bright colors have something to do with that. However, if you look at Meng Jiao’s mom, and the nearby recreation of Su Dongpo, they have a difficulty in conveying age.

Of course, I am nit picking. The point Spring Festival lantern displays is to do exactly what my friend and I did — walk around and smile at them. There is plenty of time to do just that. While the western holiday season is coming to an end, the run up to Spring Festival is just beginning.

 

Inside the Changzhou Clay Art Club

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The Changzhou Clay Art Club is truly a multipurpose space. I have passed by this place for a year or two in the back of Qianbeian in downtown Changzhou. This is a tiny little historic district next to where they are building the Wenhuagong / Downtown Metro Station. It’s on a back street and near a few small cafes and tailor shops. I have had a hard time locating an address or a map location. Not too long ago, I got to see the inside of the this arts and crafts club.

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It has the feel of a sculpture gallery. The owner, actually, is a not only a skilled sculptor himself, but he is also works for Tianning Temple. Some of the religious themes have carried over into his private work on display here. Many of the pieces are available to purchase, so the Clay Art Club also functions at a place where one could get decor to spruce up a living space.

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However, I did state earlier that the place works as a multi-use space.

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It also functions as an arts education center. However, I got to know this place for the first time for a fundamentally different reason.

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There are two rooms available here for hosting events. Two good friends of mine recently held a farewell party here. They were two of long term residents who had lived in Changzhou for many, many years. For personal reasons, they opted to return to Australia. They will be dearly missed.

Western Breakfast at CF Cafe

There are two reasons why I would ever eat Pizza Hut’s food. They can receive orders in English if you call them for delivery. Also, they do scrambled eggs and French toast breakfasts up until 10:30. Given Pizza Hut’s wide reach, that’s highly convenient if you are traveling through unfamiliar places in China. In Changzhou, however, there are some places that offer a western styled breakfast with higher quality food. CF Cafe is one of those establishments.

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The food here has always been of high quality. Their cakes, breads, sandwiches, and pizza are all worth the trip. However so are their breakfasts, and the prices are roughly the same as Pizza Hut. As implied earlier, the quality of their offerings are much, much better.

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This is scrambled eggs with salmon. It came with a fried tomato and a salad with Japanese style dressing. This cost about 45 RMB. For me, salmon is a very rich-tasting fish. There is only so much of it I can eat in one sitting. The portion here was just about the right amount. While I enjoyed this, I liked the next dish even more.

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The baked beans and the tomato makes me think this is a more British styled breakfast than American, but that that’s really splitting hairs. So this is basicaly scrambled eggs with spinach and mushrooms. Other sides include a breakfast sausage and potatoes. This runs about 55 RMB. That’s roughly similar to what I normally pay at Pizza Hut. Maybe it’s 5 RMB more, but I will gladly play the difference.

These two options are not the only breakfast choices CF Cafe has to offer. However, this category of food is just another indication of the quality you can find here, whether you are seeking breakfast, lunch, or dinner.

CF Cafe is located in Taihu Road in Xinbei and is across the street from the media tower and complex. It’s walking distance from Wanda Plaza and it’s BRT station.

Not as Gourmet as the Name Suggests

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There are places throughout Changzhou that make me scratch my head and wonder what they were like in their heyday — you know, if and when they were ever used for their potential. It seems that when new retail and commercial spaces are built, business doesn’t grow into them. Simply, businesses move from the old places to the new. As a result, some places look derelict.  The Nationwide Bridge Gourmet Plaza 怀德桥休闲美食广场 in Zhonglou seems to be one of those places.

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It’s a sunken food court just across The Grand Canal from downtown’s Injoy Plaza. It’s where the B1 BRT route crosses over the bridge and turns towards a Wujin trajectory. For years, I passed this place on the bus and my ebike. I thought it was deserted. Recently, I indulged my curiosity and walked down and took a look around the place.

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Despite some appearances, the place is not completely dead. In many respects, it reminds me of some of the old retail areas in Wujin: mostly abandoned, but a few shops still hanging around to give the space some semblance of life.

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A few pictures up, you can see the outdoor area. It’s an-open-air circle. Some of the storefronts are dusty and locked, and others are open. As the English name suggests, the business here is food. There are some busy kitchens here. That seemed very odd, because for all the food being prepared, there really wasn’t any diners sitting around eating. Turns out, there is a perfectly plausible explanation.

I got caught up with walking around some of the more dark and spooky back corridors here. However, after being around this area for like 20 minutes, I realized that was foot traffic into and out of this place. No, not diners. Meituan and and other delivery app drivers.

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This area obviously existed before Wechat and delivery apps came into prominence. If I had to guess, this sunken plaza was not originally envisioned as a potential hub for take-out kitchens. There is a huge gated housing estate nearby. This likely was a much busier food court than what it currently is. Obviously, those days seem far long gone, now.

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A Skatepark in Xinbei?

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Recently, a small skate park has popped up in the Found City shopping plaza across the street from Xinbei Wanda. This is actually in the inner part of the plaza, and is currently in front of the equally new Ellen’s Bar. It’s fairly simple with a few obstacles like two rails, a launch ramp, and a few others. There are two quarter pipes at each end, too.

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I’m not sure exactly what is going on, here. Could this be linked to an upcoming event? A few months ago, Vans did a skateboarding demo in Wuxi. Regardless, in the time this little skate spot has been in Xinbei, I haven’t actually seen anybody riding it. I would have tried, as I do have a board. However, I’m a middle aged guy that easily prone to foot injuries these days. Some of the signage seems to suggest it’s legit and lays out terms of use.

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There are only two sports I tend to be a fan of: professional wrestling and skateboarding. So, I hope the above place is legit. However, I have to speak with a little bit of skepticism. Up till now, Changzhou has had two big skate spots. Over in Qingfeng Park, there is a X-Games styled place that even has a half pipe. Yet, the obstacles are rusted, it’s unsafe to ride, and it’s closed to the public. Down in Wujin, there is a concrete set of banks set up like a snake run. A few years ago, I had actually spent an afternoon riding it. This is in the park next to the Holiday Inn near the Wujin governmental complex. Last time I was there, layers of dirt had made that place unusable.

The other issue, really, is Foundcity. From time to time, things pop up there, remain unused, and then vanish. I remember an attempt to set up a outdoor gocart track, for example. So, as I said. Count me as skeptical. As somebody who appreciates skating, I really want this place to be used and still in Xinbei within a couple of months. However, I will not be surprised if this vanishes, too.

How to Get to the Shanghai Foreign Languages Book Store

I really dislike it when people tell me to just buy what I need off of Taobao or DangDang. Then again, I have been known to be a very stubborn and grumpy dude sometimes — and this is coming from a guy who, back in New Jersey, actually shouted at a bunch of kids and told them to get off my lawn. However, getting back to the my point, shopping and browsing a physical retail space can be enjoyable for some people. This is especially true when it comes to buying books. Perhaps I am a bit of a literature nerd. Okay. Fine. Point taken. Still, there is a sense of adventure when you walk into a store and you let a book unexpectedly find you.

Unfortunately, there is not a lot of places to do that in Changzhou, currently. What you can find are mostly just educational texts in Xinhua Bookstore branch locations. Changzhou foreign folk have been told the top level of Banshan, downtown, will eventually have have big non-Chinese selection of texts. However, that still has not come to pass.  While this city is growing, there are still some things that you still have to go to Nanjing, Suzhou, or Shanghai if you do not want to use the Internet.

Books in English are definitely one of those commodities. Thus far, there is one particular bookstore in Shanghai that I have frequented. Sure, there might be others, but this one has become a habit for its wide selection and a relatively easy location. It’s in The Bund, and I often mix my Shanghai book buying with equally enjoyable culinary investigations that involve sandwiches.  Whatever your reason for a Shanghai day trip, Here is how to get the foreign languages book store.

Get from Changzhou to East Nanjing Road. 

There are two ways of going about this. It depends on which train station you are travelling from. If you are going to Shanghai via Changzhou North, you will end up at Hongqiao. Two subway lines reach East Nanjing Road from here. Trust me, Line 2 is the quickest. The trains from downtown Changzhou will take you to Shanghai’s central station. There, you will have to take Line 1 to People’s Square and switch to Line 2.

Find Exit #3 At East Nanjing’s Metro Station

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The bookstore is only like three blocks or so from East Nanjing Road, and there are many routes one could actually take. I am suggesting this one because it involves the least amount of turns. Plus, I hate walking on East Nanjing’s Pedestrian Street. There are too many swindlers, panhandlers, grifters, and pimps there that either want to sell me a watch or “a massage with extra romance!”

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Exit 3 takes you through part of the basement of Hongyi, which is a shopping center. Once you are up and out of the station, the pedestrian street will be on your right. A smaller street will be on your left. Walk down the street. Do not turn afterwards. Stay on this street.

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Find Fuzhou Road 福州路

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As I said, you should be walking a straight line. You haven’t turned. You should pass through any intersection with Hankou Road 汉口路 on your way to Fuzhou Road.

Turn Right and Find Your Destination

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Once you find Fuzhou Road, turn right. You will know when you are in the general vicinity. There are other book stores around here. One is dedicated to art and photography. Most of the stuff sold there is in Chinese with slick colorful pictures, but they do sell beautiful Taschen volumes. If you are into art, this is one of the biggest international art book publishers. If you see this particular establishment, you have actually passed the foreign languages book store, but not by far. Your target destination is pictured below.

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If All Else Fails, Show A Cab Driver This

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A Mysterious Chinese Fragrant Pot

A common mistake some foreigners make is thinking their Chinese friends are all experts when it comes to their native cuisine. I will admit that I have been guilty of that in the past. There are many errors to this way of thinking. For example, which Chinese food? It’s a huge country with many different regional cuisines. Once you factor in local delicacies, you can live a lifetime of trying a new dish everyday and still not have gotten to everything China has to offer an adventuresome eater.

In the end, some dishes are harder to research than others — even in Chinese. The restaurant 筋牛坐筋头巴脑香锅米饭 Jīn niú zuò Jīn tóu bā nǎo xiāng guō mǐfàn has been very difficult to figure out. Let’s start with the name, as half of it is easy to miss-translate into Chinglish. Following the rule of translate the easy stuff and leave the specifics in Chinese, I would call it Jin Tou Ba Fragrant Pot and Rice — or just Jin Tou Ba as a short form. The official sign outside the place says “Ribs, Head, and Brain.” I don’t feel comfortable saying that, so for me, it will be just Jin Tou Ba going forward. The other option would be the place’s actual Chinese name, Jin Niu Zuo.

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The frustrating thing is I really like the food here, but none of the Chinese people I ask know anything about this restaurant or the style of food. That’s weird, because every time I go here, the place is busy. I even asked my students at Hohai, and even they didn’t know. Hohai University is national institution and draws students from all over China. I often joke that while I am their English teacher, they are my Chinese cultural instructors. To use an extremely Chinese expression, it’s a win-win situation. Not one of my students said, “Oh, I know Jin Tou Ba!”

Okay, so enough of the personal mystery. What is the food actually like? The closest comparisons would be malatang 麻辣烫 and malaxiangguo 麻辣香锅. Even that comparison is not entirely accurate. Malatang is a soup, and Malaxiangguo I think is a spicy stir fry. The point of comparison with all three involves self service.

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Jin Tou Ba has a similar set up, but it results in a beef stew. A diner walks in, grabs a bowl, tongs, and selects from meat, vegetables, and dumplings. Then, they must choose from a series of pots of braised meat. A lot of those choices are organ meat like tripe, but the first pot is essentially braised beef. The woman behind the counter weighs your selection, gives you the price, and then asks your preferred spiciness level. I tend choose weakest option above “not spicy,” but you can get Sichuan levels of heat if that is desired.

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The quality of the food is very good. Jin Tou Ba has become a reliable and convenient lunch or supper option for me, as of late. The braised beef has always been tender and not over cooked and chewy. All of that is served with a simple side of white rice. However, I like that they have a hot pot condiment station. I always prefer mixing minced garlic and scallions into sesame seed paste (think, tahini).

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Changzhou currently has two of these places. One is on the pedestrian street at Xinbei Wanda Plaza. The other is in the basement of Injoy Plaza downtown. My average meal here has averaged somewhere between 40 to 50 RMB, but I have always left full and satisfied.

I still haven’t figured out what this food actually is. I have now sort of given up on figuring this puzzle out. It comes more from a memory of my mother. She had been experimenting in the kitchen, and I had been poking her creation tentatively with a fork. “Stop analyzing your food, Rich, and eat.” Sometimes, I just need to do exactly that.

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Wujin’s Hell Razed

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I have made an effort to track down many of Changzhou’s Taoist and Buddhist places of worship. This comes not only from a point of curiosity, but also a genuine interest to understand Chinese culture. I have been wowed by some of the intricate iconography. I have also on occasion found myself transfixed by truly gruesome and brutal depictions of the Chinese underworld. They are very similar in both Taoism and Buddhism.

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I have seen the Buddhist version of hell at Wanfo Temple in northern Xinbei — up by the Yangtze and one of the huge industrial ports. The Taoist version was in western Wujin, out where the former Qishuyan district used to be. Of the two, the Taoist one at Bailong Temple felt more creepy. The above picture is of a dimly lit narrow corridor.  Grotesque statues depicting demons torturing the damned were behind very dusty glass.

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However, if anybody ever wants to see this, they are currently out of luck.

 

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This desolate hallway used to be built into the Western-facing wall of Bailong Temple. However, I recently returned there with a friend. We were collaborating on a magazine article. I noticed a profound difference in my surroundings while I was there.

 

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Sections of Bailong Temple have been demolished. The above picture is related to the picture of the statue in the pool. In that picture, you see a white wall. This is actually where that white wall used to be, now. That desolate hall showcasing a Taoist gallery of horrors is now gone, too.

 

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In many respects, this is actually not surprising. Nearly all temples I have been to in Changzhou have had some sort of renovation and construction in progress. It’s just that a huge part of Bailong has been razed, and parts of the temple have been blocked off. The same could be said for the nearby Dalin temple and the area in general. There is likely a very long term development plan in place to build this area as tourist destination. I can’t cite any proof. I can just say that I have seen, with my own eyes, A LOT of construction and going on here over the past year or so.