Saturday, September 13, 2008

Paralympics --- Two Games, Equally Exciting I : Parking, Parking, Everywhere

Back in Beijing, after a short trip to Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Didn’t think I would miss being in the hustle and bustle of Olympic crazed capital city, but so glad to be back in the be-drizzled 'Jing.

During the few days we were away, the city said goodbye to the Olympic athletes from 200 nations, and prepared to welcome the Paralympic athletes. The new slogan was unveiled: 两个奥运,同样精彩!(“Two Olympic Games, Equally Exciting” is my own alliterated translation. ‘Same Splendor’ just sounded too pompous to me.) The Olympic Village was officially renamed “Disability Olympic Village.” (The Chinese translation for the Paralympic Games is 残奥会, or more precisely, the Olympics for the Disabled.) The various Olympic traffic lanes now have newly installed signposts with the 3 color Paralympics logo declaring ‘IBC/MPC’ or ‘Reserved for Disabled Olympics’. The one reminder of the Olympics was the 5 Ring Olympics logo painted directly on the various restricted-traffic lanes (besides the endless replays of Team China vs. whoever is in her way on CCTV-5).

Since it was way past midnight when we got in, I didn’t notice some of the other improvements until the next morning when we went for a short walk around the neighborhood. First, there were only a few cars parked on the sidewalks. You may ask, why would there be cars parked on the sidewalks? Initially, I thought that people had taken their cars out for weekend outings, but then my wife noticed the freshly appeared short metallic stumps (in yellow and black bee stripe colors) that now prevented cars from driving directly onto the sidewalks. You see, the sidewalks along both sides of the road that passes our apartment complex is flush with the road. In fact, the sidewalks are level with the cycling lane, which is separated (by planted bushes) from the 4 lane main road (2 lanes in either direction). In the past, many drivers have presumed that this means they can drive onto the sidewalks and park there. Thus the sidewalks have been turned into parking lots that allowed parking for free.

My wife had actually complained about this a few times. The first time she called the local traffic police station, the officer who listened to her complaint told her that they did not have enough personnel to police this. The second time, she was told that there was no law against parking on pedestrian sidewalks and hence they could not ticket these cars!

On our stroll, we ran into the guys who were putting in the stumps. These guys go around these streets and look for ‘spots’ where the previously parked vehicle had pulled out and then put in the anti-parking stumps. They kept on hearing complaints. There were those who said they cannot possibly do this, as this took away their ‘benefits’ (of free parking!). There was an old man who told them that one driver was on out-of-town business and wouldn’t be back for weeks. Occasionally, the stump crew would find that they did not come soon enough after a car had left; in the interim, another driver would find and park in the ‘spot’. My wife suggested that they just bar all the remaining cars in and then leave notes on these cars to let the owners know whom to call to be let out. But the crew wouldn't go for that...

Over the last 2+ weeks, the number of parked cars has gone from over 50 to over 20 to 10 to 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and has been stuck at ONE for the last week. The ONE, the last offending vehicle, presumably driven by somebody on out-of-town business, is a silver Citroen Elysee, has the license plate 京 J19352 (京 for Beijing), and is parked just east of the side gate of our building complex.

In the mean time, one of my wife's predictions came true. So where would people park now? Certainly not in the parking lots around our neighborhood. So they are parking in the cycling lanes and right lanes. But at least the sidewalks are back to being sidewalks...

Friday, September 12, 2008

A New Yorker in Ningxia

We flew to Yinchuan (which literally means Silver River) a few weeks ago for a short getaway right after the Olympics. We were hoping to go to Dunhuang from Yinchuan, but didn’t make it, since the train ride was over 19 hours and ran only on alternate days.

For those of you who have never heard of Yinchuan, it is the capital of Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. Ningxia is part of the northern route of the Silk Road. The Yellow River reaches its northern most bend in Ningxia. For me, the city of Yinchuan came to me in the pulp novel Tian Long Ba Bu by Louis Cha. (Louis Cha, Zha Liang Yong, pen name Jin Yong, deserves quite a few blogs from me, as I have always joked to my Chinese friends, “Everything I know about the Chinese, I learned from Jin Yong.”) But I could not locate the Xi Xia (Western Xia) palace, with underground cellars of ice. In any case, we did go see the royal tombs of XiXia Kingdom. But they were nothing like the Ming Tombs outside of Beijing and looked like big dirt beehives or haystacks that were about the height of 2 persons.

Not much in the city of Yinchuan itself. We stayed in the old city, which is not very old, and the new is, well, just new. The city itself is this 25 km long narrow strip that joins the old part of the city with the new, which had the train station and km's and km's of condos and gated communities. In the old city, there are two famous Buddhist temples and quite a few mosques. The northern temple HaibaoTa dates back to 500 A.D. The western temple ChengTian Si used to house the Ningxia museum. The mosque next to the (old) city square was under renovations, presumably for Ningxia's 50th anniversary as Ningxia Muslim Autonomous Region in November. In the city square, there is a mini-Tiananmen, complete with scaled-down Mao portrait. I kitsch you not!

As in many Chinese cities, the city (and here the Ningxia regional) government occupies the newest and biggest office buildings and complexes. Unfortunately, these new buildings looked rather ugly to me and remind me of Soviet style buildings. One night we took a ~3 km stroll along the main street, passing by the main shopping districts, with malls that looked like Hong Kong malls (and probably built by HK developers), to get to a lamb restaurant, GuoQiang, across the street from the Ningxia regional government complex. There was certainly a lot of lamb to eat. And the roasted lamb-on-a-stick (not quite kebobs) in Yinchuan has a distinct flavor from the ones in Beijing (which are supposedly more of Xinjiang origin). My wife thought the lamb in Yinchuan is more heavily sauced and greased.

Besides the abundance of lamb, there’s sour milk (yoghurt) everywhere. The sour milk in Yinchuan is the best I have had anywhere. There are plenty yoghurt stands along the sidewalks and in the public parks. These stands sit underneath tents, each with a handful of tables, each table coming with its own share of empty yoghurt containers. 3 yuan for each yoghurt. These ubiquity of these stands sort of reminds me of NY hotdog vendors; only with tables along the sidewalks and the offering is yoghurt and drinks (both soft and beer). The analogy would have been more apt if there were kabob stands everywhere, but there must be restrictions on the types of sidewalk vendors. We did not see a single lamb-on-a-stick vendor anywhere.

The main local crops seem to be corn, sunflower, and millet. We passed a sliver of a shop featuring seed roasting, and bought 6 yuan's worth. They were on the smoky side, but quite tasty. The shop was right next to a lamb-in-a-bun shop. The bun itself was toasted and crispy. The lamb was flavored with green chilies. Mouth-watering when I think about it.

See what writing this blog has done to me! Now I’m hungry! I’ll write about our venture out of Yinchuan to XuMi Shan another day. But first, let me go find myself some lamb-on-a-stick.