Visiting the Summer Palace

The vast Summer Palace is in the north of the city. Along this lakefront is a covered arcade called the Long Corridor, and it is about a mile long. The largest building is called the Tower of Buddhist Fragrance, facing Lake Kunming.

Looking east down the Long Corridor toward Invite-The-Moon Gate

   Each roof support has a different painting on it, part of a story. 
Heath liked this one with a bat. Bats bring good luck in China. 

   More architectural detail, this one with a food theme: bok choy, snails, lotus root, fish, and flying saucers. 

Never mind the cats.

Painting calligraphy on the sidewalk with plain water and a large brush; we think he was writing poetry

Painting calligraphy on the sidewalk with plain water and a large brush; we think he was writing poetry.

Tourists taking pictures

Our turn!
Small girl and older brother attempting to extort an ice cream out of their father. He's resisting it, obviously. They won.

Here in the Heralding Spring Pavilion, a little girl and her brother pester their stern father for an ice cream. In this photo he appears immovable, but they prevailed. 

tourist barge at the Summer Palace


This is your typical Beijing guy - working his tail off while talking on his cellphone. China never got wired in the first place, so it is entirely wireless now - far ahead of the US in this regard. Everyone has cellphones, from farmers in the country to the average Joe walking down the street in town. They have much better manners about cellphones in China than they have here too, I might add.

   Siesta time at the Summer Palace. Well, for Jody and me, anyway.

The Dirt Market
Please note sanxian. This one now belongs to Bill Evans, thanks to Suzanne Hale.

Suzanne Hale took us to a number of her favorite places, including the "Dirt Market," a huge antique and would-be antique market. We of course saw Tienanmen Square, the largest town square in the world, passing Mao's tomb and a whole lot else as part of various journeys, including this one. With Suzanne, we also found ourselves wandering the hutongs, small neighborhood streets and alleys where the older, pre-high rise enclosed family compounds are, through little markets where no white tourists had probably ever been before, and to carpet dealers in obscure little alleys. More about the carpet dealers on the next page.

We wove through an underground fish market that Suzanne aptly described as a "fish zoo," which featured a staggering variety of marine life, including live geoducks from Puget Sound (a very large and obscene clam), every imaginable fish, along with live snakes, frogs and toads! Mmmm! 

   Suzanne watches as Heath scores the first of several sanxian purchases of the trip.

A man in market playing a very strange musical instrument to an image of Mao Zedong



Do I blend in here? I was happier than I look in this photo, honest.

Qianmen Pickle Market


We continued to some of Suzanne's other favored destinations including a pearl market, a killer Kaifeng-style restaurant (see below), and this ancient pickle market in a neighborhood of streets too small to carry vehicles. This was in the Qianmen Street zone, below Tienanmen Square, a place we returned to several times. This pickle market was unforgettable. 

Heath, Suzanne and Jody admiring; Suzanne bought pickled peanuts for a cab-ride snack. YUM!

Heath, Suzanne and Jody admiring the goods; Suzanne bought pickled peanuts for a cab-ride snack. YUM!

The pickle market at Qianmen

Each stoneware crock here has a different pickled something in it. We carted a lot of pickle back into California that came from this store. You cannot get this stuff here, unfortunately.

The candy department at the pickle market


Candy is one of the major food groups in China, as elsewhere.

Number 1 Dumpling of Kaifeng!

      This is the restaurant of very happy tummies: No. 1 Dumpling of Kaifeng! 

      Thank you, Suzanne Hale!

Great Wall at Simatai

On a Saturday, we finally got out of town to visit the Great Wall with Peter Moustakerski, our USDA liaison, who was up from Shanghai for the event, along with his sweetie Laura Burt, who edits a business weekly in that city. The five of us were fortunate enough to have the use of the Embassy's Chevy van with its delightful driver, Mr. Sun (everyone in China was introduced by first names with the notable exception of Mr. Sun). We took the advice of a guidebook and went to Simatai, a stretch of the wall that's farther from town and much less touristy. 


For once, a guidebook had it right! The Wall offered spectacular views of Mongolia and northern China on either side. Our journey there was augmented immeasurably by a little ad hoc army of "guides" - five local women who attached themselves to each of us at the entry down in the town and who sprinted up the mountain and arrived at the Wall before our tram arrived. 


Goin' up on a mountain...

For hours, our guides (below) stuck to us like affable shadows, cheerfully chatting up a storm about which tower was which, and so on. Several hours later, as we prepared to descend the hill and head back to Beijing, they moved in for the kill, with their bags of books, T-shirts and so on. Peter and Laura, both fluent in Chinese, had gone ahead just a bit, and suddenly, we three Blue Mountain Tourists were surrounded! In China, one is expected to haggle and bargain over most things, but these gals were formidable. Even Heath, with his Black Belt in bargaining, met his match in their tag-team approach to selling high. They whined and hammered. We finally succumbed to their pitches, parting with more kwai than necessary, but we got out OK. 

Like cheery bumps on a log, our five guides rest on the railing to the right.
   Here are our five ladies, like amiable bumps on a log. 

This closeup of the bricks of the wall shows a white mortar we were told was made from rice paste! 
Missing bricks were allegedly stolen by Japanese soldiers as mementos of their occupation of China.


Whilst walking the Wall, we noticed a man in a little nook in one of the watchtowers...

Heath went down and with Laura's translation assistance, made his acquaintance. He lived in a nearby village on the "Mongolia" side and had made a habit, since his wife had passed away, of coming up to this tower to have a smoke and simply be quiet and watch the countryside. 
Wang Gung Cai tuning up; this is the really big sanxian
There was one last real bonus to our little journey out to Simatai. We'd asked one of our jolly guides if there were any local musicians thereabouts, and she replied yes, there was a blind singer. Her description didn't sound terribly promising, so we thought little more about it, but somehow, before we got out of the village at the end of the day, she'd sent word that some Americans wanted to meet the musician. We were actually in Mr. Sun's van just headed back toward Beijing when we spotted a young man with a white cane, sanxian slung over his back, tapping his way along the road toward where we had just left.

We brake for sanxian players!

Having hastily pulled over, we jumped out to accost Wang Gung Cai, and were rewarded with an impromptu roadside concert which began with renditions of "Yankee Doodle," "Doe, a deer, a female deer," and "Oh Susanna" in honor of our coming all the way from California. This charming young man played the large "country style" sanxian (sahn-shyen, which simply means "three strings") of the north, as opposed to the more delicate smaller version used in Chinese chamber music. He regaled us with several other pieces, songs and instrumentals. At one point, he passed the sanxian to Jody, who frailed a credible version of Yankee Doodle. 

Jody holding forth, Wang Gung Cai applauding and our Wall guide happily listening.

Since our gig took up every night, we missed some of the concert life we might have encountered, but we made up for it in our collisions with fiddle and banjo music al fresco. The banjo, of course, was the sanxian we'd encountered at Simatai. Finding fiddles in action took a little longer. 

Temple of Heaven

In the southern part of Beijing, the Temple of Heaven covers an area of a little more than a square mile. The main buildings in what is now a lovely city park were built in the Ming Dynasty in 1420 for worshipping heaven and the earth, and its extraordinarily complex landscaping is overlain with circles and squares, including some fascinating acoustic spaces for folks who like to whisper and sing. And dance the tango too.

tango lessons in the park

This very large round plaza was one of the 'remarkable acoustic spaces.'  If you put your head very close to the perimeter wall, you could whisper messages to someone else far along the same wall, and be quite audible despite the cacophony of the folks in the middle of the plaza. The joint was jumping that day, too. 

Jody, here, is in the sweet spot of one of the other 'remarkable acoustic spaces,' and yes, he's singing. 
Only in this spot does the effect occur, a remarkable amplifying of one's voice.

 The actual Temple of Heaven is here, behind Jody.

Around the temple itself is a huge garden, with museums and covered arcades, lawns and groves of trees. Here we encountered the fiddlers, and what a jovial, spirited lot they were. Chinese fiddling is not expressed in whispers!  

A group of fiddlers, the woman singing had the most lovely gestures as she sang.

The Chinese fiddle is the erhu (are-who), a two-stringed item with a small, short tube for a body. Like the sanxian it has a head of python skin, with a long neck with no fingerboard. Playing it vertically in the lap, you simply stop the strings with your fingertips, and the bow hair runs between the strings. While the instrument is physically quite different from the western violin, the spirit of the players would be instantly familiar to anyone who has witnessed fiddling in any other culture: players jammed, trading verses, keenly watching and listening, the younger players learning licks from the older ones. Their repertoire came mainly from Peking opera, and as a session would be cooking along, people walking by would listen for a moment, and when they recognized the tune and saw an opening, they'd burst into song. The spontaneity and joy of simply making music out in a park, for one another and anyone else who cared to listen, was infectious and delightful. It was a scene reminiscent of Washington Square Park in the late Fifties.

Erhu players, singer, and listeners. Note the guy in the back kicking a coosh ball. He was great, and he was also about 80 years old.

Mr. Coosh.

The same group of erhu players, with a different singer

While the fiddling was instantly accessible, the singing was otherworldly to our ears. We could never fathom how the singers knew when to come in, as the structure of the tunes was, to our uninitiated ears, utterly obscure. Moreover, the Peking opera vocal style was given forth in a stentorian laser-beam falsetto, utterly unlike western vocal styles. But it all clearly went together, and the impromptu sessions were a thrill to listen to and watch. 


Jody mused that the tradition of just hanging out in public places to play for the joy of playing seems to have vanished in America; nowadays, folks seem to need to either busk or have a stage on which to perform. If the Blue Mountain Ramblers ever get back to Beijing, I'd like them to go out to the Temple of Heaven with some instruments and just sit on a ledge in the long arcade by the gardens and play tunes like the neighbors there did. Then we'd finally have that cultural exchange! 

That'll be cash on the barrelhead, comrade...

Want to keep going? Bravo! Click here to go to page three or page four


This site began as a practice version of an article I wrote for The Old Time Herald, and that article has been published. 
Be sure and read this fine magazine, which you can access by visiting their website at

Click here to read Jody Stecher's different and quite wonderful article which he wrote for Fiddler Magazine

This little scrapbook is a work in progress. More pictures are bound to come, and more jabber to go with them. Check in again.
Most of the photos are mine, but a few good ones are Heath's and Jody's. Xie xie! 
In case you hadn't noticed, many of the pictures have built-in captions that light up when you put your cursor over the image.
Want to see my lutherie pages? Click here. Email me here.

last fooled with on 25 February 2001