Yearning to Breathe Free

China’s notorious smog has made the news again.

I lived through episodes of smog there even in the early 1980s. Back then, individuals did not own cars, but nearly everyone in Xi’an heated and cooked with coal. The greasy pall blanketed the city and invaded our lungs.

The central heating plant at Jiaotong University in Xi'an, 1981.

The central heating plant at Jiaotong University in Xi’an, 1981. ©1981 Patti Isaacs.

I returned to Xi’an for two months in 2005. People were cooking with natural gas, but coal was still being burned in power plants, and cars were everywhere. The city was shrouded in smog most days. You can read in more detail in this earlier post.

A sunny day in Xi'an, November, 2005. The sun is the faint orange dot just above and to the right of the office building in the background.

A sunny day in Xi’an, November, 2005. The sun is the faint orange dot just above and to the right of the office building in the background. ©2005 Patti Isaacs.

Everyone was acutely aware of the problem, and looking for answers. “We do not need sunglasses,” said one of my students. Xi’an’s taxis could run on regular gasoline or natural gas. There was never a line at the petrol station, but the cabs would be lined up for blocks waiting to be refueled at the natural gas facility.

About six weeks into my two-month stay, I began to feel desperate to get out, to go someplace where the air was clear, to take a deep breath that didn’t feel bad. I finally got my chance on my return trip home, when I had to change planes and terminals in Los Angeles. I decided to walk instead of taking the shuttle. I stepped outside, looked up at the blue sky, and drew the Los Angeles air deep into my lungs. It seemed so clean.

Every American who thinks that environmental regulations place too much of a burden on industry should be required to spend a few months in China, breathing smog without the chance to escape.

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Bound Feet

An elderly woman with bound feet on a city sidewalk in Xi'an, 1982. © Patti Isaacs

An elderly woman with bound feet on a city sidewalk in Xi’an, 1982. © Patti Isaacs

Just today a friend posted a short video about foot binding on Facebook. Living in interior, rural China in 1981-82, I often saw elderly women with bound feet; the practice continued longer in the country’s interior than in the big coastal cities of China’s south and east.

In an earlier post, I mentioned elderly women with bound feet who nonetheless made the arduous climb to the top of Mt. Huashan not far from Xi’an. It was a challenging climb for me with my youth and big feet. I was doubly impressed by the women, many in their 70s and 80s, who picked their way  up 5000 vertical feet on lotus feet.

View the video here:

Scroll’s Facebook video of bound feet

 

Xi’an’s Terracotta Army—influenced by the Greeks?

 

Terracotta Soldiers

By Peter Morgan from Nomadic – Detail, Terracotta Warriors, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2909770

A controversial new theory has arisen about Xi’an’s famous army of terracotta soldiers. I first saw them in 1981, only six years after they were discovered in a farmer’s field east of the city.

New research—and the results of a genetic study—hint that Western explorers may have reached China more than 1,500 years before Marco Polo. Some experts think ancient Greeks may have inspired and helped build China’s famous Terracotta Army.

The BBC reports that the new theory is based on evidence from excavations at the tomb of China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi, as well as the results of a genetic study. Read the full article here:

Did those who made the terracotta soldiers learn from Greek sculptors?

 

Xi’an Food Gets Famous

This makes me a little happy…and a little sad. I’ve loved that Xi’an food has been my little secret. But after Anthony Bourdain discovered Xi’an Famous Foods in New York people are learning about the region’s spicy, tangy cuisine. Here are a couple of shots from restaurants I frequented when I lived in Xi’an, and a link to Business Insider’s profile of the New York chain.

Xi’an Famous Foods gets noticed again

Street Food

Meats, vegetables, and tofu ready to be skewered and grilled at a sidewalk eatery

DSC00245

“Pants Belt Noodle”—a Xi’an specialty. Often served in the leftover broth from Spicy Fish Head. Sounds weird, tastes amazing!

 

Golden Autumn in Xi’an

GoldenGingko

The instant I saw the landscape in this photo, I thought, “This must be just south of Xi’an.” Sure enough, when I read the full article from  www.thisiscolossal.com I discovered that this 1400-year-old gingko tree sits in the courtyard of a Buddhist temple in the Zhongnan range of Shaanxi’s Qinling mountains.

Foothills of the Qinling Mountains south of Xi'an, Shaanxi. ©1981 Patti Isaacs.

Foothills of the Qinling Mountains south of Xi’an, Shaanxi. ©1981 Patti Isaacs.

In 1981 Gauss and I went with our students to nearby Cuihuashan. It had not been developed as a tourist destination and was a poor but scenic agricultural area.

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Rice paddy at the base of Cuihuashan. Photo © Patti Isaacs.

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Every bit of arable land was used. Photo ©1981 Patti Isaacs.

The following spring we were able to bike to a nearby monastery, one of the few left intact following the Cultural Revolution. Steve Jackson (far left in the photo below), another American teacher, rode with us. He got a flat tire just south of the city and when we stopped for a quick roadside repair we drew a crowd of onlookers who were quite willing to give advice to the guy fixing the innertube.

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Steve Jackson (left) looks on as a roadside repairman fixes his flat tire. Photo ©Patti Isaacs.

Monks spread grain on pavement to dry at the Xing Jiao monastery in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains. Photo © 1982 Patti Isaacs.

Monks spread grain on pavement to dry at the Xing Jiao monastery in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains. Photo © 1982 Patti Isaacs.

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Inside the monastery. Photo ©Patti Isaacs

For more gingko tree eye candy, visit the Chinese website where it originally appeared, or go to This Is Colossal for English captions.

http://www.yicai.com/images/2015/11/4715614.html

http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2015/11/an-ancient-chinese-gingko-tree-drops-an-ocean-of-golden-leaves/

Chinese Lingerie Merchants of Egypt

 Chen Yaying and Liu Jun, who go by the names Kiki and John, in their lingerie store in Asyut, with their Egyptian assistant Rahma Medhat.Credit Photograph by Rena Effendi / INSTITUTE

Chen Yaying and Liu Jun, who go by the names Kiki and John, in their lingerie store in Asyut, with their Egyptian assistant Rahma Medhat. Credit Photograph by Rena Effendi / INSTITUTE

I’m a huge fan of Peter Hessler’s writing. Author of River Town and Country Driving,  Hessler knows China and Chinese people like few others. Now based in Egypt, he  wrote an article in the New Yorker about Chinese businesspeople there who, oddly enough, have carved out a niche in the lingerie market.

His article explores how the pragmatism and fatalism of Chinese merchants—they’re there to make money, not to change anybody’s ideology—allows them to be flexible and adaptable in the face of political upheaval in the Middle East. It also delves a bit into China’s presence in Africa as a whole, something few Americans consider.

On a personal note, having lived in China during the repressive era when even to wear a skirt was considered a bit risqué, it’s amusing to consider a Chinese farmer-turned-lingerie-merchant nonchalantly selling thongs and transparent negilgées to Muslim women.

It’s a fun and informative reading for anyone with an interest in China and Chinese people. Link to the original article here:

http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/10/learning-to-speak-lingerie

The Worst Place on Earth

Black sludge pours into the lake - one of many pipes lining the shore (Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

Black sludge pours into the lake – one of many pipes lining the shore (Credit: Liam Young/Unknown Fields)

Just today I came across an article on the BBC Website—frighteningly on their “Future” page—about the Inner Mongolian city of Baotou, about 500 miles north of Xi’an. There’s little that I can add; it’s a must-read and will make you think hard about your desire for another smartphone or other electronic gadget.

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth

The name of my blog, Time Travel in China, springs from my observation that within China, a traveler often feels transported in time as well as space. Visit a remote village where homes still rely on charcoal heaters and are equipped with outhouses, and you’ve gone back to the turn of the American 20th century. Visit Shanghai with its skyscrapers and Maglev trains and you are in the most modern city in the world. Visit Xi’an or Beijing and experience air pollution that lies ahead if we’re not careful. Visit Baotou and glimpse an apocalyptic future.

Under the Dome

I’ve posted this photo before. It was taken in Xi’an on a rather ordinary day in 2005. The sun is a faint orange dot visible above and to the right of the small rectangular building on the horizon. I really enjoyed my return to Xi’an, but after two months I was dying to get home, primarily to breathe some clean air. I saw blue sky about 20-30% of my time there, but mostly it was gray, hazy, and nondescript.

SunnyDayIn Xian

A movie about air pollution in China, “Under the Dome” was released just a few weeks ago. I wanted to link to it because it explores the concerns of ordinary Chinese people about their polluted environment in much greater depth, and from their point of view, not mine as an outsider.

Upworthy.com has a great summary and short clip of the movie if you don’t have time to watch the whole film:

http://www.upworthy.com/everyone-waited-for-it-to-be-taken-down-150-million-views-later-its-still-up-watch-it-here?c=reccon1

The Upworthy summary highlights many of the same things my Chinese friends discussed with me. I told them that we used to have prodigious pollution in the U.S. as well, citing big industrial eastern cities like Pittsburgh. They wanted to know how we cleaned up the air.

Technology initially played a big part in it. But now we’ve taken care of much of our pollution problems by outsourcing them, along with our manufacturing jobs, to China—but that’s another issue, and it’s addressed in the full movie. If Upworthy is too radical for your taste, you can watch the entire movie on YouTube—with English subtitles, but not the summary—here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T6X2uwlQGQM

And the movie gets into topics like alternative fuels, urban planning, and public policy in a very accessible way that anyone can understand.

The Communist Party’s central propaganda department ordered the movie removed from Chinese websites after 300 million views. Edward Wong of the New York Times wrote about it here:

http://cn.nytimes.com/china/20150308/c08dome/dual/

Sunnier Days Ahead?

SunnyDayIn Xian

If you look above and just to the right of the squarish building in the distance, you’ll see a faint orange dot. This was the sun on a “clear” (i.e., no clouds) day, struggling to shine through Xi’an’s prodigious smog.

I loved returning to Xi’an in 2005 but after two months there, I was desperate to go someplace where I could breathe a big lungful of clean air. When I flew home I had to change planes and terminals in LA. After the 14 hour transpacific flight I decided to stretch my legs and walk instead of taking the tram. I stepped outside the building and looked up to see blue sky, paused, and breathed deeply. Aaahhh! Then it occurred to me: I was in Los Angeles. Compared to China, the air seemed pristine.

It’s not like the Chinese were oblivious to their terrible air quality. Everyone talked about it, and when I told my friends that our industrial cities used to be that way but no longer were (think Pittsburgh in the 1950s) they all asked how the U.S. had accomplished this.

Even at the end of 2005 I saw efforts by the Chinese to change the situation. Xi’an’s taxis could run on either standard petrol or much cleaner natural gas. You could drive right into a conventional gas station without a wait, but there was always a line of taxis at least a quarter mile long waiting to fuel up with natural gas.

There may be a lot of things we don’t like about Chinese government, but they are efficient at enacting change when they want to. Within five years of my leaving Xi’an, they had built a subway system in the city. And I’m sure there was a subsidy for those taxis to use natural gas.

This article from the Sierra Club magazine gives us reason to be at least a bit optimistic.

http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2015-2-march-april/feature/clearing-skies#1

Transformation

Washing a sweater in an enamel basin in our kitchen. I was too shocked to take pictures the night we arrived. Gauss took this photo a few weeks later. Notice the big enameled Thermoses. They were everywhere.

Washing a sweater in an enamel basin in our kitchen. I was too shocked to take pictures the night we arrived. Gauss took this photo a few weeks later. Notice the big enameled Thermoses. They were everywhere.

I catch myself bringing up my China experiences a lot—probably to the chagrin of my conversation partners.

Am I wallowing in the glory of my youth when I dared to embark on a year-long adventure? No, I realize that it comes up so often because it was a transformative experience. It occurred early in my life, and I have looked the world through the lens of that experience ever since.

I’m a baby boomer. Life in the 1960s and 70s for white, middle-class kids was pretty sweet. Most of us could protest and nothing bad would happen to us. We could swear at our parents and we knew they would still love us. We could bike to a protest on campus and when we came back, we could sleep in our cozy beds. It was easy to feel like we had the world by the tail.

A hundred years earlier even royalty did not enjoy the comforts we had in our middle class suburban ramblers: central heat in the winter; perhaps air conditioning on hot summer days; a stove that lit with the turn of a dial; a toilet that flushed; hot and cold running water any time of day; a refrigerator to keep our food from spoiling; a washing machine; a car to take us wherever we liked.

China in 1981 transformed me because suddenly I did not have those things. China was agrarian and low-tech. The pace of life was slow. Nor, for much of the time, could I socialize unfettered with my Chinese friends. The Cultural Revolution was still visible in the rearview mirror.  Handlers watched us. Neighbors peeked out the window to note who was coming to visit.

That year was uncomfortable, as periods of change are. At times I was furious, but I survived and sometimes even thrived. I learned to be happy cooking dumplings or walking through neighborhoods where people went about their daily business. A frank conversation with a friend away from listening ears and prying eyes was something to write about. A piece of chocolate was a rare treat.

When I got back to my home in the States, turning on the hot water tap, or pushing a button on the washing machine, was like magic. Thirty years later I still think about it when I brush my teeth or do the laundry.

Empathy and appreciation are in all of us. The pace of modern life often drowns them out, but stripped of convenience and clamor for that year in China, I rediscovered them.