"Oh! So you're going there for a cultural exchange?" 

Well, not exactly, but in its own way, that's just what happened. 

An agricultural trade fair takes place in Beijing every year, and the United States Department of Agriculture represents the US as one of about thirty nations at the fair. Their thrust at the 2000 fair was to promote the marketing of US food products to the dala, the burgeoning Chinese middle class. There is a large outdoor garden by the Great Wall Sheraton in Beijing, just down the road from the expo site itself, and every evening for nine days last June, the USDA sponsored a Great American Barbecue there, offering a lavish buffet of all kinds of American-style foods, including such items as corn-fed beef, Alaska salmon and crab, corn on the cob, taters in aluminum foil, California wine, fresh citrus fruit, even individually wrapped dried prunes. Truly, what American barbecue would be complete without individually wrapped dried prunes, pits still in? We three—Jody Stecher singing and playing mandolin and fiddle, Heath Curdts on vocals and banjo, and myself on vocals and guitar—were brought in to provide ‘authentic music’ for this event. While the throng munched, we played. 

At the USDA's main office in the Embassy compound in Beijing, there presides a woman named Suzanne Hale. Suzanne has spent many years in Japan and China, and is as well a big fan of bluegrass music, particularly the Dry Branch Fire Squad, and knew their banjoist, Bill Evans, from her sojourns on US soil. In 1999, she intended to have him come to do his marvelous one-man banjo show at an event in Beijing. Alas, in May, NATO forces (a U.S. B-2 bomber, to be precise) bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, so Bill was advised not to go in 1999. He was, however, invited back for 2000, but being booked by then for a banjo camp, Bill passed the gig on to Jody, who in turn called me and old-time banjo whiz Heath Curdts. Not quite bluegrass anymore, but at the last minute, we had a trio poised to represent rural American culture musically in China's capital city.

Will Heath
                  make it back into the picture before the timer goes

Not only were we delighted to have a chance to do such a gig together (we have been pals for a very long time but mostly connect socially as musicians), we were thrilled to be able to spend time in China. Jody had been to India and Burma,  and to Hong Kong some years back, and Heath had been in India and the Middle East, but never China, and the closest I had come to direct contact with an Asian culture was Madagascar, which is closer than one might think, but still not really China at all. Living in the Bay Area, we have long been in close contact with California Chinese culture, but truly, Beijing is the heart of China! We knew something about Chinese music, we did our requisite reading of guidebooks (all wrong!), and went and got visas in hopes it was all going to happen. It did. We left on the 19th of June on the first-ever direct 12-hour flight from San Francisco to Beijing.

Only a few hours after arriving we attempted a soundcheck in preparation for our first show, in the sweltering heat and humidity of the Beijing afternoon. The tech guy hadn't so much as a trace of knowledge of how a mixing board and mics worked (but at least he was ill-tempered), so we stepped in and got it running, hoping with all our heart that what we were doing would enable us to be heard adequately in the audience. A few folks with ears assured us it would do, so we launched into our first set, and it went quite well, considering. On one of our breaks at this opening evening's festivities, a fashion show was staged, with full runway, deafening disco music, big spotlights, lots of dumbstruck Chinese businessmen ogling dozens of extremely thin, dangerous-looking six-foot-three Chinese women modeling mink garments from (you guessed it) America: purple mink bikinis, tiger-stripe lime green mink hiphuggers, jeans-styled jackets in mink dyed to resemble cheetah. Blue mink boas. The perfect attire for a Great American Barbecue, especially when the temperature is in the nineties with humidity to match. Welcome to the Peoples Republic of China! 

By the time we finished our last set for the evening, around 11 PM Beijing time, it was midday of the next day in our dog-tired California brains. We had, at this point, been awake (more or less) and in motion for a very long time—the 12 hour flight, plus the wakened hours of the California day (and night) before we departed, plus the time since we'd landed. Not a stellar opening night, but we made it, and folks seemed real pleased.

Subsequent nights had the same schedule, alas without the mink queens, but still with Johnson, the spectacularly incompetent sound man. The drill: first set at 7:30, play as we deem appropriate until 10 PM or so, depending on how the crowd feels. Each night was different - sometimes we were background ambiance, sometimes people were really listening. Sometimes the crowd was really large, sometimes small. 

                  percussion orchestra

Once we were mixed into a separate, regular Friday night hotel-sponsored event called Dragon Night, where we shared the entire garden area with a small Chinese circus, complete with a parade dragon, jugglers, clowns, acrobats, a large drum orchestra, and a wild buffet of ethnic food, of which the Blue Mountain Ramblers approved. The Filipino lounge band (Ramón and the girls, delightful people) did a set as well, a tug of war for the guests was held, prizes like microwaves and TVs were dispensed. 

Music is a service industry!

So who was there to listen to this peculiar cultural exchange? Assorted denizens of the hotel, some of whom were there for the ag fair, some just there on other business. Whether on slow or busy nights, the crowd was usually about half Chinese, but we detected eastern Europeans, Germans, Russians, Africans, and a few Americans.

                  and winsome lasses with plates on sticks
 Fiddle and banjo is about the last thing one would expect to hear in a hotel in Beijing, so the response was warm and enthusiastic. One woman from Tennessee, who had lived in China for twenty years, requested songs and assured us that we were a real hit with the Chinese. This was news because we felt we weren't getting through at all, they seemed so passive. She assured us, au contraire, that we were doing very well, and that they were indeed listening raptly, a great compliment. Another American woman (Jean Ritchie’s cousin, as it turned out) came and asked if we knew any Jean Ritchie songs—which of course we did, a few anyway—and we obliged with Black Water and Goin’ to Boston. 

the wall of glass is the

the Dragon
                  of the Sheraton Great Wall
Each night we improvised our sets, based on what inspired us, or what seemed to segué well from the previous song or tune. Since we were, after all, playing for The Great American Barbecue, one theme we happily explored focused on items that might be edible, perhaps, if barbecued. This list included prosaic menu items like vociferous old hen, bell cow, taters, duck, sheep, pig, green corn, and forkèd deer. Then there were Chinese culinary specialties like dog, snake, and assorted equines, on to more obscure grill items such as katydids, lichens, frogs, squirrels, grey eagle, acorns, boll weevils, apples, groundhog, barley, buffalo, possum, miscellaneous scaled reptiles (with and without legs or rattles), washed down with whiskey and/or cider. 

These varied musical menus revealed and increased themselves nightly, to our great delight. Although Heath and I sang some songs, Jody did most of the singing, with Heath and I croaking away on the choruses. The situation was relaxed enough that we generally got onstage each time and just enjoyed ourselves and the little adventures we were generating out of our collective repertoires. Happily, it seemed to work well for our audiences too. 

Of course we were delighted to play our music for the folks there, but we were just as enthused to see what we could find out about life in China. This turned out to be much easier and much more rewarding than we had imagined. Our professional obligations seemed clear enough, so from breakfast until downbeat at 7:30 in the evening, we had about 12 hours each day to explore. And explore we did, indefatigably and enthusiastically. Part of the reason for the makeup of this band was the shared enthusiasm for travel and new experiences. Oh yes, and food. The Blue Mountain Ramblers do like to eat. 

Speaking of food, one of the things we discovered in advance about this hotel was its reputation for its restaurants. The most famous of the four was way up on the very top floor, with this view. The food was extraordinary - and expensive! We managed to catch a rare blue sky from up there, looking west over Beijing. In the foreground are remains of an old palace (the hotel is situated on these former grounds, hence its garden) and some structures used in public events. The garden where we played each night was down to the left of this shot. 

Talking to Ralph?
                  Available for a proposition?

This was one of the more curious pieces of statuary we saw there - it was on the grounds of the hotel, around behind the red temple where we took the band shots. It looked Thirties or Forties - but what was it?

The Sheraton
                  Great Wall - wish you were here!

Here's a postcard of the hotel where we stayed and played. Between the little temple, a relic of the original palace grounds, and the hotel itself was a huge pond and decks where the tables were laid out for the Great American Barbecue each night. The killer restaurant was way up top. We had breakfast every day at the Silk Road Trattoria, and ate one large and sumptuous meal at the Chinese restaurant on the mezzanine, as guests of the management (read Jody's wonderful account of our trip in Fiddler magazine for details on that!). Also in the hotel was a French bistro we never even went into. There is something to be said for having a refuge like this in a place like Beijing. Air conditioning, showers, and good coffee, among other things.

Tintin is
                  in China, not Tibet!
Beijing is a very modern, cosmopolitan city, an enormous flat rectangular metropolis not unlike LA. The moment we walked out of the airport terminal, it was clear, Toto, that we were in Kansas no longer. The propaganda image—somber gray little people in baggy pants, sandals, quilted jackets, Mao caps with red stars on them, shuffling off to work brigades with shovels over their shoulders—was swept away very quickly. The people look nice, they're generally very friendly, and the place is absolutely full of life. The pace is really gentle, and dare I say unstressed? Beijing has been described by folks living in China, who know it well, as a very laid back kind of place. Indeed, I found it so. And despite the 12 or so million souls crammed into that vast flat rectangular town, I (a hulking Caucasian) never felt conspicuous. 

One of my abiding impressions about being in Beijing was feeling completely safe and comfortable, even though we were such obvious outsiders. When you smile at someone, they invariably smile right back. They are eager to try out whatever level of English they have on you, just for the pleasure of communicating. Even the teenagers who were shilling for art galleries were a delight to just hang out with. Yes, they wanted us to come to their gallery and buy something (which we did), but they were happy to spend several hours wandering around, helping us find things, translating things, escorting us on mundane little errands like finding reading specs and batteries. Their generosity and warmth were sincere. We even met people who just wanted a chance to hang out and speak English. No commercial agenda. Never did we encounter so much as a sideways glance, much less any hostility. 


Last I'd heard, everyone in Beijing rode a bike, but alas, not so much anymore. There were still lots of bikes in broad bike lanes, serenely floating along, but the roads and freeways were swarming with new Volvos, VW Santanas, Buicks (they make them in China), Dodge Caravans, Toyotas, Hondas and Jeep Cherokees, BMWs and Mercedes, apace with throngs of propane-powered Xialis, most of which were red, and were taxis. We'd get to know those red jobs well by the time we left. 

Air quality in
                  Beijing is not unlike air quality in Los Angeles
shopping street near the hotel;
                note the ubiquitous red Xiali taxis

A regular streetcorner, I
                    loved the exclamation point on the banner! Does this
                    look like Communism?

There are still lots
                    of bikes in Beijing

Shanghai GM - it's a


Here is a scene Jody discovered on an afternoon ramble in the neighborhood around the corner from our hotel. Some shop keeper decided to enliven the sidewalk in front of his shop with a goldfish in a simple enameled bowl. There it was, this shimmering little carp, a subtle and poignant touch in such a place as this. 

Qianmen Street

Amber with
                  Heath and Jody walking south of Tienanmen Square - no
                  music store in sight

Everything we read in guide books was wrong wrong wrong! But it mattered little, as we'd routinely pick a destination for the day, get a little Chinese "I'm lost - please return me to the Great Wall Sheraton" card from the concierge so we could safely get back if the cab driver didn't understand English, and off we'd go. 

Realizing that some of our new acquaintances in Beijing intended to take us off to their favorite spots, we resolved to spend some of our time exploring neighborhoods and visiting tourist spots, and had very little agenda, other than hoping to find a good music store and some good food. One of travel's greatest pleasures is just wandering until something happens. 

Morning number one commenced with a trip to an alleged music store, a good enough pretext for getting out into the thick of things. Card in hand, we hailed a cab for a neighborhood south of Tienanmen Square said to harbor the music shop. On arriving, we were almost immediately accosted by two earnest young people, a lad named Cawley (who played the guitar) and a very tiny, energetically chipper girl named Amber, who were each just graduating from high school in different towns out in the provinces. It quickly became clear that, though they had ulterior motives, they had good hearts and really just enjoyed tagging along with us, practicing their English, showing us things, explaining and translating, helping us find the music store (we found two, each rather underwhelming), and grilling us as well.

Again, Jody, Heath and Amber,
                  Qianmen Street

Finally they asked if we'd like to come visit the art gallery they worked for, to view some traditional Chinese art. We said sure, why not, and clambered up a couple of flights of stairs in the back of a cellphone store. The gallery had quite a selection of original art by a number of artists, some quite good, others less inspired. We did, in fact, buy some pieces. 


My particular prize was a large scroll painting of a young Chinese woman, kneeling in repose, holding an apple, an enigmatic and serious air about her. The composition was quite traditional, so far. The face riveted both Jody and I particularly, and then we all saw the quirk: a sneakered foot. Jody astutely observed that the painting was like the music we played: old and new at the same time.

Cawley, PH, Jody and Amber. Guess who took the photo.

We didn't find the good music store until days later, though we got a superb introduction to China, just wandering the streets and watching people go about their business.  

Pipas, sanxians, and
                  erhus, oh my!
A later foray into that neighborhood with Suzanne Hale paid off when we found a full-service music store, on Dashanlan Street, which offered dozens of different instruments serving a multitude of clienteles, from Han to Mongolian and many of China's lesser-known ethnic minorities. From hammered dulcimers to sanxians, from guqins to guitars and saxophones, picks, strings, python skin by the running centimeter, horsehair for bows, you name it - they had it. By this time we'd all gotten sanxians, including one for Bill Evans, so we stocked up on silk strings. 

Bracketed by guitars,
                    western violins and saxophones is a beautiful guqin,
                    China's most ancient and emblematic instrument.


plastic bag from the shopPython skin for heads on
                  sanxians and erhus, and black horsehair for bows.


This fearsome thing is called "Drunken Man Howling," and when we got a demo from the shopkeeper, we understood why! 

The Forbidden City

Day Two took us to the old walled imperial palace, called the Forbidden City. The Chinese monarchy ended in 1911, and it has since become an enormous park that includes all the old buildings and grounds, temples, shops, museums and gardens.

                  Michelle Yeoh?


If you've seen the recent film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (I liked it a lot), you have glimpsed the Forbidden City. The whole "Peking" segment, including those flying-over-the-roof nighttime scenes, were shot there. The place is absolutely vast. Since we were there, someone told me there is a Starbucks inside the Forbidden City. Glad I didn't see it. 

China really wears the
                    color red, among others

   This place was red long before Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.

temple after temple in
                  the Forbidden City

We were admittedly tourists, but what we didn't quite comprehend in advance was being such a minority amidst so many other tourists, basically all of them Chinese. As Americans flock to Washington DC to see the sights, so do the Chinese throng to Beijing, once in their lives anyway, to experience a bit of their own cultural history. And as wonderful as it was for me to see the splendors of the ancient dynasties that were responsible for the Forbidden City, I got the greatest pleasure out of watching the Chinese families drifting through the place around us as they laughed and took snapshots of one another, chatted, shared picnic lunches. Observing how they simply behaved with one another revealed a great deal.

carving the

Chops are personal stamps, usually carved from stone or very hard wood, from before the days of rubber stamps and personal literacy, and are ubiquitous in Chinese paper life. While in the Forbidden City, we spied a little shop that made chops to order. We'd completely lost Heath in the vastness of the place anyway, so Jody and I decided to have a Blue Mountain Ramblers chop made while we waited for him to reappear. Communicating the concept of Blue Mountain Ramblers to non-English speakers was an entertaining adventure in itself. A great deal of earnestness, pointing and laughter occurred, and finally a chop was completed, paid for and wrapped up. We never saw Heath again until we all got back to the hotel. When we finally got to show the chop to someone who could read its older Chinese script back to us, it was: Blue Mountain Tourists! Fair enough. 

                  proof (see the top of this page)



Each day had one major adventure and several minor ones. The next page starts with an account of our visit to the Summer Palace, and goes on to the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, and much more.

What would the Great
                    Helmsman think if he saw China today?

Want to keep going? Very good! Click here to go to page two or page three or even 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 http://www.oldtimeherald.org

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