Nov 8 2010

Sucking Diesel and Swimming With Elephants

Considering the epic post I wrote about our overland journey between Ulan Ude in Siberia and Ulan Bator in Mongolia, I am hesitant to regale/bore the five devoted readers of this blog with a play-by-play of our 8.5 hour journey from Kathmandu to Chitwan National Park. But since I’m on the subject of Nepali roads, there are some highlights worth pointing out:

–        The distance between Kathmandu and Chitwan is approximately 150 kilometers. Not miles. Kilometers.

–        The journey took eight and a half hours.

–        It was our 2-year wedding anniversary.

–        Our seats were in the back row of the bus, on the right side. This is significant because the exhaust pipe was also on the right side of the bus, directly in front of our window. The bus ran on diesel, the kind that produces smoke so black and noxious that in the States it’s released out of the top of trucks’ cabs so that no one has to breathe it.

–        We were breathing it.

–        After noticing black grit settling on my Kindle, I put on my industrial-strength face mask, the one I’d bought for eight euros in Helsinki to protect myself from the smoke in Moscow caused by this year’s forest fires. I still ended up with a sore throat. (Also, Moscow’s smoke was much more pleasant – it smelled kind of like the entire city were cozying up next to a wood-burning fireplace, as opposed to sucking on a diesel exhaust pipe.)

–        During the two hours it took to get out of Kathmandu, the bus was moving so slowly that food vendors were actually hopping on the bus, working the aisle, and then hopping off the bus. This sounds treacherous, but given our speed, it was less dangerous than getting on a moving escalator.

–        This turned out to be one of the relatively fast-moving parts of our journey, since as soon as we got out of the Kathmandu Valley, the traffic completely stopped. As in, engines were turned off, people got out of their cars, and we moved forward by 10-foot intervals for about two more hours, staring at a line of parked cars, buses and trucks snaking down the entire valley. I seriously suggested that we should walk back to Kathmandu. We decided not to, only because being back in Kathmandu actually sounded worse than being in a parked bus on the side of a mountain.

Please note the cars snaking down the hill in the background.

It all turned out okay, though, because the next day, we got to go swimming with elephants. You know the quote in Ferris Bueller’s Day off where Ferris says, in reference to Cameron’s dad’s Ferrari, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up”? I could give a shit about cars, but when it comes to elephants, I strongly agree. We were staying at the Island Jungle Resort in Chitwan National Park, and every day, the lodge’s elephants get led down to the river to bathe. Guests are invited to join them. Unable to wait, Peter and I scampered down to the riverbank several minutes before their scheduled bathing time, and soon found ourselves sitting on their backs, legs wrapped around their backs, as a handler stood behind us on their bottom yelling commands – one of which translated to, “Please shoot a trunkful of water into the tourist’s face.” It was like a firehose – and left us both completely giddy.

A different handler invited me onto his elephant, and then things got a little more confusing. This elephant didn’t know the water-spraying trick. Instead, it was kneeling in the river, and its handler kept shouting, “Madam, hold on! Hold on, Madam!”

“To what?” I tried to ask him. This was bareback elephant riding, and there were no obvious handles. So instead I gripped more tightly with my legs and did my best to hold on as the elephant, again listening to some indecipherable cue from its handler, began to roll its head from side to side, nearly tipping me off into the river. (This was not a big deal, since we were already basically in the river, but I was worried the elephant might continue to roll – and no one wants to go swimming under an elephant.)

“Hold on, Madam!” the handler yelled again. I looked at him, confused. “Ears!” he shouted. “The ears!”

As soon as he said it, I realized that there were actually two obvious handles – they were flapping in front of me. The top of each ear was thick and fleshy, with long dark hairs that provided a good grip. No sooner had I grabbed on than the handler shouted a different command and this time, the elephant dunked its entire head under water.

Peter and I have since debated what I should have done in response, and I’m curious to hear your thoughts. Let go? Go under? Here’s what I did: for the first two or three dunks, I arched back and tried to keep my head above water, which sometimes required letting go of the ears and thus risking tumbling off. Eventually, I figured that the dunking was part of the point, so I kept hold of the ears and let the elephant pull me under, figuring that, as two land-dwelling mammals, we’d both have to come up before too long. But that was before I realized, thanks to Peter, that one of us actually had a built-in snorkle.

Nov 3 2010

Hitting the Road

See that guy on the right? With the ducks? They're alive.

The remainder of our stay in Nepal was a bit quieter, though much bloodier, than our first week – we were there during the Dasain festival, one of Nepal’s biggest celebrations. It involves two weeks of festivities devoted to the goddess Durga, the highlight (or lowlight) of which is the day when hundreds of thousands of animals across the country are sacrificed to the gods. I’m not exaggerating. Chickens, goats, even buffalos are slaughtered, usually by chopping off their heads. I spent a good part of our trip debating how killing another creature really counts as a “sacrifice” – it seems the only one giving anything up is the goat. But that didn’t seem to bother people. The worst sound of the trip, by far, was a buffalo being decapitated across the valley from the deck where we were eating breakfast. I’ll leave it to you to imagine that soundtrack.

How convenient that I happened to match my outfit to the blood. (That's not paint.)

Most families kill at least one animal, and it’s also common to give an animal to your preferred means of transportation. According to a woodcarving salesman we met in the city of Bhaktapur, motorbikes get a chicken, cars might get a goat, trucks a buffalo. Our guidebook claims that Nepal Airlines actually sacrifices a goat for each one of its planes. On the runway. Granted, they only have about seven planes – but still? Can you imagine something like that going on at JFK?

Given the number of head-on collisions we saw – not to mention trucks driving down the road with suspiciously head-shaped holes in their windshields, or overturned vehicles lying on valley floors, or overcrowded public buses with upwards of 20 people clinging to the luggage rack (I am not kidding – and sometimes they shared the space with a precariously perched goat) – I have some suggestions for road safety that I might propose implementing before, I don’t know, chopping off a chicken’s head and dribbling blood on your handlebars. Like, perhaps, helmets. Or seatbelts.

We saw minibuses with about twice this number of people on them.

Interestingly, no one denies that road safety is a concern – most public buses and trucks had signs painted across their front bumpers that said things like “SPEED CONTROL” and “SPEED LIMIT 40 KMPH” (and, in one distressing instance, simply “OH! GOD”). But having been on Nepal’s roads, I don’t think speeding is really the issue. The roads are too crowded and in too poor of a condition for anyone to go too quickly. And if/when trucks do adhere to a low speed, it actually makes things more dangerous – cars and motorbikes simply leapfrog past them on tortuous mountain roads, putting themselves at risk of head-on collisions. I thought it was funny that instead of wearing her seatbelt, our Tibetan guide made sure to sprinkle some barley on the dashboard as we left Lhasa, just to be safe. But in retrospect, maybe I should have been more appreciative. I’d much prefer an offering of grain to a dead rooster.

Good luck?

It seems that windshield decor often takes precedence over the driver's ability to see.

Oct 27 2010

Sleepless in Nepal

For previous sleepless nights, click here.

Here is how I know that I am a deep sleeper: there was a night during high school when a motorcycle caught on fire outside my bedroom window. Said window was on the 2nd floor of a Manhattan apartment building, about ten feet away from the curb. The motorcycle’s driver had spent the previous ten minutes revving the engine trying to get it to start, a process so loud and so absorbing that he failed to realize that there was gasoline leaking on his leg until a spark from the engine lit it on fire. Shouting, he jumped off the bike and extinguished his pants as his motorcycle began to burn. People ran out of the ABC studios next to our apartment to see what was going on. My own father tossed him a fire extinguisher from our window, which turned out to be so old that it didn’t work. Eventually, the motorcycle’s gas tank exploded, sending flames shooting to the third floor and destroying his bike.

I know this story is true because the next morning, as I left for school, my father showed me the blackened patch of pavement where the motorcycle had been parked. But personally, I don’t remember any of it. Not the shouting, not the flames, not the fire department, and not even the fact that my parents, worried that if the bike exploded it would shatter my bedroom windows, actually walked me out of bed and into their bedroom, then walked me back to my bed again. I didn’t wake up for any of it.

So you can trust me when I say that night time in Nepal is loud.

We spent our first few days in the country at a yoga retreat on a hill above Kathmandu, a peaceful enclave with fruit trees and carefully manicured lawns and “luxury safari tents” overlooking the valley below. It was a welcome break from the craziness that is Kathmandu, with its constant honking of horns, plumes of exhaust, and roaring motorcycles.

But that doesn’t mean that it was quiet. We got our first hint at what night time held during our orientation talk from the yoga teacher. “There are many insects at night,” he said, as crickets chirped in the background. “And birds. And animals. You know rooster?”

We knew rooster.

“And local women, they go to the hill to collect herbs, and when they come down, they leave offering for the gods and they ring a bell,” he explained. “They ring the bell sometimes very early. Maybe five, four, three thirty in the morning. There are many noises. So do not be afraid!”

We weren’t afraid, but we were a bit curious about what the fuss was for. Crickets and birds and roosters might be loud, but they’re not that unusual. Sure, bell-ringing women of the night sounded odd, but they couldn’t possibly ring the bell for that long.  And besides, we were used to Kathmandu. How loud could it possibly be?

Oh, Catherine. How naive you were.

The first creatures to break the afternoon’s relative silence were the dogs. There are thousands of them in Kathmandu, and they all began barking around seven, just after the sun had gone down. It was as if there were an intricate system of communication between them, a sort of canine version of “Telephone” that could only begin after dusk. It started with one dog barking, then another would begin, then another, and before long there was a chorus of dogs echoing through the valley, as consistent as cicadas (which there also were), but much less pleasant. From what I could gather, the discussion appeared to be something like this:

Dog #1: I’m here! I’m here! I’m here!

Dog #2: And I’m here! Did you hear me? I’m right here!

Dog #3: Helloooo? I’m here, too! Whoah! Did you hear that echo? How cool is that! Helloooo!

Et cetera.

Exhausted from fourteen hours in the car (we had come from Everest Base Camp all the way to Kathmandu), neither of us had trouble falling asleep that first night, even with the dogs. But peaceful slumber did not last long. Despite my fatigue – and ear plugs – I was awoken at 3:27 am by a loud bell ringing somewhere that sounded like it was directly behind our tent. And it wasn’t a one-time ring. No. The herb-gathering women, apparently worried that the gods might be heavy sleepers, each rang the bell for five to ten seconds at a time. Ring ring ring ring ring. Silence. Twenty minutes. Ring ring ring ring ring. This went on until our 6:30am wakeup call, as if it were the world’s longest snooze button.

Then came the buglers. We were near some sort of military training post, and from what I could tell, they spent the majority of their day trying, rather unsuccessfully, to play arpeggios in unison on instruments left over from World War II. Slow and methodical, they would skip up the scale and back down again, sounding less like a military band than a third grade recital held at 7 in the morning. Instead of silence, their brief breaks were filled by the sound of Nepali pop music playing from a neighbor’s radio (who left it on all day, starting around 6am), occasionally broken by the screaming of a nearby baby. Afternoon would usually bring some quiet, and then the dogs would begin again.

This routine played out for the four nights we were there, but the strangest was undoubtedly the fifth, when I awoke at 2:45 a.m. to hear what sounded like someone blowing through a conch shell, then chanting loudly, over and over again, as he walked the path behind my tent. In my half-awake state I worried for a moment that this might be some sort of night time rebel trying to incite people to launch an attack on the yoga center. This was not the case; I think it was a local man who, like the herb-gathering women, had a habit of wandering the hills in the wee hours of the night, making unconscionable amounts of noise in an attempt to alert slumbering deities (and yoga students) to his presence.

When we left the yoga place for Bhaktapur, a fascinating city several kilometers outside of Kathmandu, I expected the barking of the dogs to be replaced by cars and motorbikes – not particularly relaxing, but at least something I had grown up with.

But nothing, it turned out, could have prepared me for what we got instead.

The first odd thing I noticed, while still fast asleep, was a dream: I was in a high school auditorium, watching the band play. There were lots of cymbals in the band, drums, too, and  – in the odd logic that so often permeates dreams –  the reason for the cacophany was that this was a special type of band in which one half of the group played instruments and the other half acted as conductors. “Of course!” I remember thinking, before taking a seat to listen to their concert. “It’s a student-run, student-performed concert! How fun!”

Then I suddenly woke up and realized that the sounds had not been a dream – there were loud cymbals and drums echoing through the courtyard outside our window. It sounded like someone had decided to schedule a Chinese dragon dance for 3:45 in the morning. Peter groaned; I believe I said something along the lines of “What the hell is that?”

I pulled myself out of bed and looked out the window, but there was no one in the courtyard except for a few shadowy figures who appeared to be approaching the courtyard’s central shrine, their entrance marked by a familiar ringing sound – another goddamn bell. (“It’s probably not a good idea to get a hotel room next to a temple,” muttered Peter, half asleep.)

True enough, but that didn’t explain where the other noise was coming from, loud crashes and bangs that waxed and waned as if the parade were marching through the streets. The noise faded for a moment as the procession became more distant; then, several minutes later, it returned – this time with flutes. Loud flutes. Was this a special ritual for the Dasain festival? Had some concert organizer gotten the schedule wrong?

The parade lasted for about twenty minutes and Peter and I drifted off into a light sleep that was frequently interrupted by the ringing of the courtyard’s bell. I almost thought I had imagined the whole thing, but here is a video that speaks to its reality:

The next morning, we asked the owner of the hotel what the noise had been.

“Oh, that’s the Buddhists. They do that every morning around three,” she said, cheerfully. Whereas I might have interpreted three a.m as “the middle of the night” and apologized to my bleary-eyed guests – or at least offered them earplugs – she said this as casually as one might relay the opening time for the breakfast buffet. “Well, the Buddhists hold a marching band parade from 3 till 3:30, and we start serving coffee at six. Enjoy your stay!”

It was the same nonchalance she exhibited when we explained that our toilet didn’t flush. “I know,” she said with a smile. “We tried to get a plumber. But he is busy because of the festival.” She then handed us a plastic bucket.

It turned out that she was referring to a different toilet problem, though – previously, there had been no water flowing into the toilet (again, a fact that would have been nice to know before I discovered it myself). But on the afternoon when we arrived, something was preventing the water from flowing out. When we explained that the toilet was actually clogged, she sent up a maintenance man, who got down on his knees and plunged his bare hand into the bowl.

“Do you want some soap?” I asked him, as he emerged from the bathroom with a bucket full of wet toilet paper and a dripping arm.

“No. It is okay,” he said. And then, in what must be the best accent-produced double entendre I have ever heard: “It is my doody.”

Oct 25 2010

Beautiful Tibet II

A continuation of our Tibet photo series.  These are from our trip from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp:

Lhamo surprises Catherine

Catherine surprises Lhamo

Peter surprises himself

Catherine's bike with Everest in the background

The road to Everest was a little . . . windy.

A land of prayer wheels

many prayer wheels

Look closely.

Catherine makes friends with local carpet makers

You talkin' to me? Then who the hell else are you talkin' to?

The road to Everest was a little ...


Yamdrok Lake

Brand Ambassador

And then, finally, Mt. Everest:

Oct 24 2010

Beautiful Tibet I

We’re currently in Hanoi, way behind on our blogging. In an attempt to catch up, here are some of our favorites photos from Tibet, courtesy of Peter.  This set is from the train from Xining to Lhasa and Lhasa itself:

Lhasa — and Tibet in general — is a truly fascinating place to visit. I’ve been in China several times before, including a trip to Yunnan province, where I visited some villages that were formerly part of Tibet. But I’d never fully considered how much the people of the so-called Tibet Autonomous Region are a. not autonomous and b. do not identify themselves as Chinese. I’d highly recommend that anyone planning an extensive trip to China visit Tibet, ideally by the train (one of the most stunning rides I’ve ever taken). It’s an expensive place to travel (you have to have a guide and driver), and the paperwork is absurd, but it was worth it.

Oct 22 2010

Belated Videos

YouTube is blocked in China, so I wasn’t able to include any videos in our recent posts — which is a shame, since it’s tough to convey Chinese top spinning competitions, ox-cart rides, and throat singing purely in words. But we’re now in Vietnam, a land of unfettered access to home videos, and here are some I meant to post before.

First, a quick glimpse from Mr. Bold’s ox-cart, during a particularly smooth patch of the ride:

Second, Chinese tops in Nanjing.

And, lastly (but certainly not leastly), Mongolian throat singing. All those noises are coming out of one person. Crazy.

Oct 21 2010

China Pictures

Here are a few additional photos from China:

Oct 17 2010

One Month Later . . .

Oct 9 2010

Peter’s Permanent

When we arrived in Beijing, exhausted from our Mongolian adventures, we decided to take it easy for a bit. I spent some time researching our train tickets, and we ventured out just for two things — food and  Peter’s main errand in Beijing: getting his hair cut.

I have gotten my own hair cut in Beijing before, and was subjected to thinning shears. So, while I was supportive of Peter’s need for a trim, I was also a bit wary of what a potential hairdresser might have in store. My wariness intensified when I saw the young men at the salon Peter had chosen: they all had long haircuts with bangs swept across their foreheads; some of them had gone a step further and styled it upwards to create poufy pompadours. They looked like what would happen if Ashton Kutcher stuck his finger in a socket.

But how difficult could a normal haircut be? After explaining in broken Chinese that Peter had hair and that he would like it cut, not too short but not too long, I asked them if they had a book of hair cuts so we could choose a picture. They did indeed — but the models all looked like the guys in the shop. We picked the least offensive one and showed it to the stylist. He nodded and got to work.

In retrospect, there were many indications of impending disaster. Like, for example, the fact that the guy in the photograph had highlights. And also, the model’s hair was wavy.

But I didn’t have a chance to really think about that second point because the owner of the salon came up to me and started trying to sell me a deep conditioning treatment for my split ends. “It’s from Germany!” he told me. “It is good for hair!”  He picked up a loose strand of my hair and inspected a frayed end as I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, pale and tired, with flat, limp hair that clearly was in need of some professional attention. But still. Twenty bucks for German conditioner? I’ll just put it up in a bun.

I kept saying no, and he kept pushing. I didn’t want to be rude but I also didn’t want his conditioner, so I was relieved when he said a word that I recognized from my previous time in Beijing: massage. I’d forgotten that in China, haircuts usually come with a head rub. And I love having my head rubbed! As Peter’s stylist snipped away, I negotiated a rate for a head massage, sans German treatment.

“Will you be okay?” I asked Peter.

“Sure,” he said, eyes still closed. I followed a young woman to the back of the room.

Over the next fifteen minutes, I received a nice massage and again was encouraged — one might even say pressured — to try the German conditioner  I chatted with a young massage therapist and was offered a back rub. When it was over, I walked to the front of the shop, expecting to find Peter waiting for me by the door.

But Peter’s fifteen minutes had been very different from mine. He had not received a head rub. Nor was he waiting for me. Instead, he was sitting under a heat lamp. His hair was twisted into foil-covered spikes and covered with saran wrap.

He was getting a permanent.

I leave you alone for fifteen minutes. . . .

I took one look at his head and started to laugh.

“What are you doing?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“I do,” I said. “You’re getting a perm.”

Peter looked at me as if I were crazy — which was ironic, given that he was the one with tin foil on his head. The rotating circular heat lamp, combined with the spikes, made him look like some sort of punk angel.

“He asked if I wanted tall hair.”

Clearly there was a gaping hole in Peter’s knowledge of salon treatments. I have never gotten a perm myself — but I know one when I see one. And while Peter assumed that he was just going to end up with a temporary curl or two, anyone who saw the vertical rise of his foil-dreds would know that the stylist had something different in mind.

“They’re making it stand up,” I told him, glancing at the other men in the salon. I’d assumed that they had achieved their gravity-defying styles with massive use of product, but upon closer inspection, I couldn’t see any tell-tale signs of hair goop. “They’re making it look like theirs.”

At this point, Peter started to get a little worried, especially when I asked the young man how much longer he would be spending under the heat lamp, and he said a half an hour.

“But I can just brush it down, right?” he asked. “It won’t last long.”

“Peter,” I said. “It’s a permanent.”

By this time I was starting to get a serious case of the giggles, but I didn’t want to insult the young stylist dutifully keeping track of the heating lamp’s orbits. I stared at my lap for a bit, then out the window. Eventually, the young man removed the lamp and saran wrap and began unwrapping the foil.

The effect was reminiscent of a porcupine — sharp little spikes of hair sticking up in neat rows from his scalp. It didn’t get much better when the stylist fluffed it — Peter’s hair not only stood up straight in the air, but its texture had changed. It looked fried.

The stylist then pulled out the male version of the German conditioner, a treatment that we refused both because of cost and out of fear that it might add additional permanence. The hairdresser seemed genuinely concerned — were we crazy? This stuff was essential! — but when we continued to say no, he reluctantly led Peter back to the sink for a final wash.

The water didn’t matter, though — his hair just popped back up again. I managed to hold myself together till the street, then burst into laughter that resumes any time I think about what his hair looked like from the side. We raced back to the hotel and Peter scrubbed his hair twice more in the sink — which made it look a little better, but could do nothing to change the fact that it felt like a shag carpet.

Here’s hoping it grows out fast.

The aftermath.

Oct 6 2010

Nanjing: It’s the Tops

Nanjing, China, was not on my list of places I must see before I die. Peter and I ended up here because of a logistical snafu — we were hoping to go overland by train from Shanghai to the western city of Xining, but the trains were sold out. We had to buy plane tickets, and the easiest place for us to leave from was Nanjing.

My previous knowledge of Nanjing was as follows:

1. Nanjing is one of the “three ovens” of China — the hottest cities in the country.

2. Nanjing’s most famous recent historical event was The Rape of Nanjing — the horrific incident in 1937 when Japanese troops raped and murdered tens of thousands of civilians.

For what it’s worth, it’s also a former capital of China, and is supposed to have pleasant tree-lined streets, a big park, and the mausoleum of Sun Yat-Sen.

Peter and I arrived here exhausted after our supposedly relaxing two days in Suzhou and checked into the Jiangsu Hotel. If the picture on the hotel brochure is to be believed, it is the only tall building in the city. The brochure is not to be believed — but that’s not to say that the hotel doesn’t have its charms. For example, the selection of toiletries on sale in the bathroom includes not just a toothbrush, but a pair of “exquisite article lady’s pants” and a vibrating condom. When we woke up this morning, someone had slipped an ad for call girls under our door.  We didn’t place an order — but that didn’t deter the brochure delivery guy. He slipped another one under the door about an hour ago; I looked up from the desk to find it had magically appeared on the carpeted floor, the Jiangsu equivalent of nightly turn-down service.

Here is something else I didn’t know about Nanjing: unlike most cities in China — most notably Beijing, where the communists destroyed the city’s magnificent walls and built a big road — its Ming-dynasty walls are largely intact. It’s pretty amazing, given that they were built during the 1300s. According to our guidebook, they’re over 30km long, and each brick was supposed to have been stamped with the name of the workshop that made it, so that any poor quality materials could be traced back to their source.

I recently read a book about modern China (Jan Wong’s “Beijing Confidential”) that described the Chinese obsession with walls. She hypothesizes that China’s love of walls demonstrates its desire for safety and security — a desire so extreme that it trumps the potential for expansion. These walls range from absurdly huge (the Great Wall) to the everyday (building courtyard homes that only have windows facing inside). Looking at Nanjing’s wall really brought that obsession to life. Once you build something like that, you’re going to think long and hard before expanding the city’s boundaries.

Anyway. Once we’d gotten outside the walls, the traffic and noise of the city melted away into a beautiful lake-side park. We were considering renting a paddle boat, but then stumbled upon one of those amazing, unexpected spectacles that one can only find in China — like early morning ballroom dancing, or limber 80-year-olds gathering for their evening stretches. It was a bunch of people, many in uniforms that looked like gold pajama suits, playing with tops.

Actually, “tops” isn’t the right word. Having just done a bunch of googling, it seems the closest term is “Chinese yo-yo.” That sounds like a derogatory term, but in fact refers to a toy “comprised of two identical discs attached together by an axle at the centre. Two sticks with a piece of string attached to the ends of the sticks are also required to use the toy. The yoyo is used by holding a stick in each hand while spinning the yoyo on the string attached to the sticks.”

This is probably easier to explain with a photograph.

When we first approached the yo-yo plaza, there was only one woman practicing. Wearing a red t-shirt and loose pants, she was spinning her top back and forth on its string as she performed a tai-chi influenced series of poses, culminating in a descent into a split. I thought she must be busking, but then we noticed that there were dozens of other yo-yos (tops, not people) on the plaza, resting on the ground and steps. In fact, the crowd gathered around her wasn’t really watching; they were getting ready to warm up.

Peter, having caught sight of an enormous top — maybe three feet in diameter — suggested we grab a seat on the steps. “This is going to be amazing,” he said. And he was right.

After finishing their metamorphosis from civilian clothing to golden pajama suits and other team outfits, the toppers, as I’ll call them, gathered in a row of lines. Alternating between attentiveness and boredom, they listened to announcements broadcast from a microphone held by a pot-bellied, baseball-cap wearing man, who had the air of an overly invested coach of a little league baseball team. This went on for quite some time. “Let them spin!” I cried in mock protest. “We want to see them spin!”

Eventually, the coach guy finished his monologue and the performance began — following cues from his whistle (and a small flag), they began entered the plaza in small groups. Each performance was set to a different piece of music, ranging from traditional Chinese songs to what sounded like Chinese hip hop.

I would have thought that watching people spin tops on pieces of string would soon become boring — how many tricks can you possibly do — but it was not. Not only did every person have a different style, but their actual tops differed, from those the height of a shampoo bottle to the enormous top Peter had seen lying on the plaza (it was somewhat anticlimactic, since the top snapped the string). Also interesting: the length of the strings and poles used to propel the tops ranged from your standard length-of-your-armspan variety all the way up to 20-foot-long strings that the toppers controlled with sticks the length of fishing poles, creating a captivating sight: tops whizzing across the plaza on elegant trajectories as if being controlled by some invisible force, the top spinner gracefully dancing beneath them.

The tricks themselves were impressive, but what I enjoyed the most was the pride and joy of the people doing them. I mean, let’s face it: top-spinning is a little ridiculous. But these people loved it, and it showed. That’s something I enjoy about China — whether it’s ballroom dance or spinning tops, there’s a lack of irony here. Why not devote hours each day to playing with a top? Why not gather with your topper friends on a lovely afternoon and put on a show? Men, women, old and young — everyone seemed to genuinely be having a wonderful time (with the possible exception of the lady doing splits — she seemed like a tyrant). As I watched a young woman with a scraggly pony tail and imperfect teeth proudly stand in the middle of the plaza, simultaneously spinning tops around her neck and around her knees before jogging off, top still spinning, I actually got tears in my eyes.

We watched the toppers for several hours before finally moving on, strolling along the wall and enjoying the view of the lake and the refreshing trees. Not too far away from the toppers, a semicircle of young people sat on the ground, listening to what appeared to be trivia questions being asked by a woman on a microphone (as anyone who has had to share space with a Chinese tour group can attest, they are very into megaphones). I was captivated: I could understand perhaps 50 percent of each question, and what I could understand made me think (perhaps erroneously) that I knew the answer. There was something about two trains, and another question regarding the sun and the time of day. The closest I got to an actual answer was in response to a question about the English alphabet. I imagined raising my hand, demonstrating to the crowd my expertise both in Chinese and knowledge available to the average American kindergartener. But unfortunately, I didn’t know what she was asking about the alphabet, so I stayed quiet.

I was focused so intently on the questions that I didn’t hear Peter calling for me. Peter, for those of you who do not know, was the Nutmeg State Badminton Champion  in the early 1990s, and he had set a goal for himself: to play badminton in Nanjing. (He even had me stop a guy on the street who had rackets in his bag and ask him where he intended to use them.)

When I finally did hear Peter’s shouts, I turned around to see that across the path from where I was standing was a small badminton court. Peter was holding a racket. I ran over and watched with wifely pride as he didn’t just keep up with, but trounced, his friendly opponent. (“I was the Nutmeg State Champion,” Peter reminded me when I praised his performance.)

And then, back to the hotel, for a dinner of steamed buns and warm beer. (The previous night we’d gone out in search of non-Chinese food and ended up at a supposedly Thai restaurant where the menu looked suspiciously Chinese, and the same plaintive love song was on repeat for the entire two hours we were there.) I wouldn’t go out of my way to return to Nanjing — but I’m very grateful for its toppers.