Sunday, December 30, 2007

a happy afternoon

In many posts I've included criticisms of what I've seen. Today, I had a perfectly happy afternoon, and it's only fair we give Beijing credit for that.

I found out just at the last moment I'd have Monday off, so we had no plans to travel anywhere these days. And so, after spending a good part of the day doing nothing (then again, what's wrong with that when you usually spend most of your days doing SOMETHING?), we decided to go to the Drum and Bell Towers. Built in the 13th centuries, when Beijing was a Mongol capital, they're set in a nice area with traditional (and restored) alleys, close to Houhai (one of Beijing's lakes).

And so, we got dressed quickly, lest our sudden impulse vanish (you can get so lazy when you live somewhere, always thinking "oh, there will be plenty of time for that later!"), and headed for the Drum Tower (Gulou, 鼓楼), which in these 2 1/2 years we had not visited (remember what I told you about getting lazy?).


Well, we got there, and promptly got our tickets to climb up. It's got some steep steps but, once you finish that unexpected rear exercise, you're rewarded with views of the Bell Tower (which has some beautiful soft green decoration on top, which harmonises beautifully with the gray stone and tiles), views of surrounding alleys and traditional houses, of Jingshan Park, of Houhai, and even of the modern structures of the Central Business District in the distance. The Drum Tower used to mark (with, of course, drums!) the time of day and, lucky us, there was a drum performance shortly after we arrived! We were standing there, just watching the city from above, when we heard a sudden and rhythmic beating of drums, so we rushed around the tower into the inner hall for this surprise performance!


Afterwards, and reinvigorated by the cold air and the drums, we headed down, to visit the other tower which, alas, was closed. So, since I was STARVING, we stopped at a Yunnanese restaurant (that is, food from the Southern province of Yunnan) right on the small square sandwiched between both towers (what a wonderful site, I must say).

And this restaurant was yet another pleasant surprise: cosy, welcoming, and with a menu so packed with vegetarian dishes I had a hard time choosing! We ordered some delicious, woody rice tea, some fried scallions with mint, thinly shredded tofu with a light chili sauce, fried mushrooms (some short, thin, dark kind), some glutinous-starchy vegetable (it's the disgusting looking one in the pic, and I know you'll all agree which one it is!) with garlic and whatever, and sweet pineapple rice! I was HAPPY. And to top it all (the delicious food, the cosiness of warm rice tea and a place resembling more a friend's living room than a restaurant), we had the most interesting of music as background (friends, this is going to sound weird, but it's the best explanation I can find): imagine the lead singer of "The Cure" (or similar band), singing in Mandarin, with Mongolian throat harmonics reinforcing the vocals at key points, with some industrial "urbanness" for good measure. Awesome. Honestly. That's a kind of cultural mix that makes me feel soooo good.


And so, in the best of moods, we finished our afternoon taking a restored alley to Houhai, stopping to buy a couple of delicious traditional Beijing pastries (one of them with sesame seeds on the outside and filled with sweet red bean paste, heaven!) that made me that much more happy, and arriving at Houhai (后海) for a soft, beautiful sunset light over the lake.


We headed back home, with just the biggest of smiles and the best of moods.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

four Beijing scenes

It's been more than a month since my last post, and it's almost year's end! so, instead of cooking up a list of excuses which could in itself constitute a lengthy post, let's get down to... FOUR BEIJING SCENES

FIRST SCENE

On December 18th we had the honour of being invited to a special performance at the theatre of China's flaming new National Centre for the Performing Arts (also known as "The Egg") to watch a performance of the "Army of the Red Detachment of Women" ballet. Located in the centre of Beijing, with Tian'anmen Square east of it, the Forbidden City across the street, and next to the Stalinist style House of the People, the "Egg" (please forgive my use of this word, but it's so much shorter than the full name) definitely stands out: designed by French architect Paul Andreu, the building has received its fair share of criticism by many Chinese, complaining that it's unsafe (referring to the unfortunate accident at the new terminal, designed by Andreu, at Charles de Gaulle airport in 2004) or that it's not Chinese enough. Personally, I love the contrast, I praise the idea of not being mired in old ideas about what is Chinese and what's not or whether it even matters, and the water surrounding the building gives it a wonderful calm atmosphere during the day.


As for the performance, what can I say: we watched a ballet that glorified the fight of decent, hard-working Chinese women for a new, Communist China, free from debasement and corruption. Living in Beijing, watching malls springing like mushrooms, women buying Louis Vuitton in astonishing quantities, knowing peasants and commoners had the hardest of times approaching officers at this year's National People's Congress, the ballet was a most interesting cultural experience, and incredibly removed from today's reality.

SECOND SCENE

On December 23rd, a Sunday, my habib had his Taichi exam! Yes, martial arts are something that many people do for spiritual development, for health, for broadening their horizons, etc. etc., but in China it is also a SPORT, just like any other, and along with that come competitions, ratings, examinations... If anything, taichi's (an other martial arts') spiritual aspect may be less important in China than in other places, as you have a far greater number of people practicing the SPORT, aiming for technique, performance, and maybe an "awe" effect. And so, in the most unceremonious of ways, my habib and a huge group of people performed a simple routine, and passed. And when I say unceremonious, I'm not exaggerating, the atmosphere was that of any ordinary school examination, the place was noisy, everything looked disorganised... All in all, it was an intriguing contrast, seeing some fantastic martial artists compete (there was a competition first, and then the exam) in an ancient art that's become a sport as accessible as jogging, though with definitely more caché. My habib was way above the level he tested, as he practices with his teacher longer, more complex and more varied forms of taichi, but bureaucracy would only let him test for 3rd Duan.

THIRD SCENE

(as usual, this post is getting longer than intended...) A Beijing X-mas dinner which, for me, meant being with family and close friends, sharing a special meal and giving presents. Honestly, it IS weird celebrating X-mas when everything around you is "un-christmas-y" (no, lit-up tress and merry X-mas signs in malls a X-mas do not make), but we tried, my habib turned my vegan dinner fiasco into something not only edible but actually yummy, we toasted (with champagne, a custom inherited from very dear Lebanese friends of ours when we lived in Beirut), and we exchanged gifts (my gift for my habib made it just on time, you have no idea what bureaucracy packages go through at customs! but in the end he, as usual, outdid me at gift-giving, lol). It was, in fact, a very merry X-mas.


FOURTH SCENE

Finally (at least for this post), on the 25th we went to the Today Art Museum. A fairly new museum in Beijing, it often features interesting exhibitions. But that day, on the 25th, the exhibition we were visiting, by a foreign artist, was not as stimulating as we had thought, and yet it led us, inadvertently, to another exhibition which was something between surprising, stimulating and disturbing. You can appreciate in contemporary Chinese art a number of artists who feature quite obsessive pieces, repeating a theme over and over. Some of them have become quite famous, sparking a series of artists who've simply copied the idea, and who picked out any one theme to obsess with (sort of like artistic piracy). As you can imagine, many of those works are interesting just as a creative exercise, leaving you wondering half-jokingly what they'll start repeating next (legs? ears? cats?), but this one artist we came across, Wang Haiyang (王海洋), did cause some impression on us, having painted himself in dozens of different positions, wearing different clothes, playing different roles and genders. There, in the gallery, as the only visitors, we were almost haunted by the dozens of eyes staring back at us, and yet we were still drawn to the paintings. We weren't allowed to take pictures inside, so this is all I could take:



And here's a picture of some sculptures by Yue Minjun (岳敏君), just outside the museum.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Red-leaf watching at Beigong National Park

On Sunday, November 11th we visited Beigong National Park (北宫国家森林公园), which is just Nortwest of Beijing. Sometime in October and November the leaves of certain kinds of trees start turning gold and red; if the temperature is right and changes at the right moment, you'll hopefully have a lot more reds than yellows and, traditionally, Chinese (Beijingers) will flock to some popular spots for red-leaf watching.


When I was a student at Peking University (a long long time ago), I went with a group of classmates for the traditional leaf watching at the most traditional of spots: Fragrant Hills (香山). It was a complete disaster (for me): the place was more crowded and chaotic than a shopping mall on a December 24th afternoon, nature was not being watched so much as snatched (people were not just taking home leaves plucked straight from the trees, they were even pulling apart some of the branches!), and I literally fled the red torment area and found respite in, who would guess, a grove of yellow leaf trees! (of course! red was IN, not yellow, therefore the groves whose trees refused to follow the red furor were quiet and peaceful). That was about ten years ago, and I hadn't tried going red-leaf watching since.

BUT, well, this is our THIRD autumn here, my habib had never gone watching the famous red leaves, and another friend of ours had had a failed outing, so I figured we could give it a try. BUT somewhere NOT popular. I mean, Fragrant Hills has a capacity for 20'000 visitors; during the red-leaf extravaganza some FIFTY THOUSAND may visit during any one day. Not what you'd deem a peaceful communion with nature, you'd surely agree. Anyhow, I did some research, asked around, and Beigong National Park seemed a good option: close, not famous, with trees that should turn red. So my habib, this other friend and me set out on a Sunday morning to enjoy nature gone communist red.


What we got was less red than we expected, but way less busy than we feared. First of all, we were surprised to see that, though there were a few visitors, the park was reasonably peaceful, and that was definitely a welcome escape from the city. Second of all, yes, there were few red trees around, but you had a lake, nature, and a number of red things we didn't expect and which you can see in the pics: some red plants (I'm very ignorant when it comes to plant species, sorry!), the expected red leaf trees, red berries, and red twigs! (I had to get really close to those bushes, I couldn't believe they were naturally red and not painted!) We also realised that, being a national park/forest and all, the place was way "manicured", there was no sense of wild nature, you had stone paths everywhere, artificial ponds and streams (many of them still in the works)... all in all, there was an overwhelming sense of order imposed on nature, which is definitely not my cup of tea: I prefer parks and forests to be in as natural a state as possible (unless were talking about Japanese zen gardens, but that's "a whole nother thing").


Conclusion: Peaceful, quiet red-leaf watching might be best left for a visit to Canada or the U.S.A. (or at least more remote and secluded spots, hopefully unknown to Beijingers), but at least we got a breath of fresh air and a quiet moment surrounded just by nature (plus a few pics with red in them just for you!). By now, very many trees have started "going bald", so the timing was just perfect, too. And of course, time beautifies everything (well, memories, 'cause it does have a nasty tendency to de-beautify some of us, LOL), so looking at these pics in a few years time will probably evoke an even more enjoyable outing. ;-)

Until next time! (there's an exhibition by Xu Bing at the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, hopefully I'll be able to take some pictures; Xu Bing's out of this world, believe me)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

798 Art Space - 5th DaDao Live Art Festival

Finally I can publish this post! Now that the Net Nanny of the Middle Kingdom has decided Youtube is no longer (at least for the time being) a threat to the Great Dragon (and pardon my not being direct, but I wouldn't want this post getting the "honolable censols'" attention!), we're allowed safe passage through the Great (Fire)Wall to enjoy the West's decadent obsession with recording everything (whether it will make someone lose face or not). And, so, I hereby present...

798 Art Space - 5th DaDao Live Art Festival

On October 7th this friend of mine, Fearghus Ó Conchuir (for those like me who fail to grasp the mechanics of Irish spelling, it's pronounced similar to "Okra Who're"), was performing at the "5th DaDao Live Art Festival" at 798 Art Space in Dashanzi (I mentioned Dashanzi, an area of factories that's being transformed into a cultural space, in my post "A day out in Dashanzi" in May). The idea of seeing an international live art festival at such an interesting space was too enticing. Plus, Fearghus had said he'd dance NAKED, and as much as I wanted to be there to understand what is an essential part of his life (DANCE), I do have to admit I was curious to see how people would react, too.

I have to admit I got a lot more that I had bargained for. I didn't really expect much, and I'd be lying if I said all the performances I saw caused an impression on me, BUT 1: I did see some that really surprised me, and 2: I'm no artist, and I don't feel at all qualified for judging any of the performances I saw, being able just to share very subjective ideas (subjective enough that I think they're best kept to myself, the subject).

What I appreciated (besides the chance to connect more closely with a friend through his art) was this feeling of seeing things happening in China, Chinese performers who were trying to do something daring, something new, maybe shocking (whether they achieved that or not is beyond the point, the point is that there are spaces where they can TRY). Maybe I couldn't understand half of the concepts the artists were trying to transmit, but I could feel the energy of the audience, trying to figure the performances out, surprised at what their eyes and ears were perceiving, happy to see things being created (and destroyed) in a space that used to be an abandoned factory, in a country that sometimes "Mings" and "Tangs" you sick (especially if, like me, you've discovered a much higher pleasure from the art produced during other dynasties, the Southern Song one, for example).

What I didn't appreciate: that the festival could not publicize itself so openly. Why? Probably self-censorship was at play; after all, this was not the kind of art the government would tout as "quintessentially Chinese" or "morally uplifting". If you want to know what happens when crowds for too uncomfortably alternative events get too uncomfortably big for the authorities, I can tell you Fearghus and other artists were twice prevented by plain clothes police from performing on a busy pedestrian street, a couple of days later (and yes, the performers were fully clothed). Also, I had missed a fantastic Tattoo Convention in July: on its last day, early in the morning, the police put a sign saying "explaining" that "all tickets for the day were sold out", and you could see a number of tattoo artists taking their equipment back home. So I could understand why the organizers didn't want to call attention to themselves. Also, there was little, if no, live art involving texts or language, dangerous tools that can too easily and clearly convey ideas (and you see this in all the international art that makes it to Beijing's art venues: there's painting, dance, sculpture, singing, but practically no contemporary dramatic art involving words).

But now, back to the performances! Sorry I can only offer you a glimpse, but my camera didn't have much memory left, and I wanted to make sure I'd get all of Fearghus's performance. So, here they are (with as little comment from me as possible):

Gao Xizi, Beijing: I - Long Life
高曦子,北京:我一万岁
Gao Xizi, dressed in pink, eats a pink cake with the help of two assistants until she can no more, and then is plastered with the remains of the cake. At the end, she makes a hand-sign that means "cute".


Artist, origin and piece name: unknown.
The artist kept writing the entries to a diary, day by day, using water to write on a circular strip of paper, over and over, coming back to the same point and writing over the already vanished entries, for hours...


Antipoeta Gerard Altaió, Catalonia, Untitled
The artist set a couple of rows of old-looking Chinese works (including some by Confucius). Then proceeded to place a fire-cracker within each, and finally blew them up , one by one. The recording couldn't capture how terribly deafening the sound was (one reason I didn't film more, as I needed at least one hand for the camera and couldn't cover both ears).


Tamar Raban, Israel: L.E.P.P. (Lesson on Performance in English / English Lesson on Performance / Performance in English on Lesson / Performance on English Lesson)
The Performance was based on words that started with the letters in the word "performance". Each performance uses different words, structures, and objects. The artist finished by "arriving" to the last "E", stepping on it, saying "exit", and "exiting" the performance space.


Fearghus Ó Conchuir, Ireland: Cosán Dearg
Without any warning, while people were finishing watching another performance at an opposite corner, Fearghus took off his clothes and, hands and feet painted red, started his dance, part of an exploration of moving bodies and urban spaces.


The only comment I dare express about the performances is my admiration for these artists that created something where there was previously nothing, and exposed it (and themselves) for us. I may not like a specific piece, or understand it, or agree with it, but I certainly craved their creating.

Monday, October 08, 2007

quick work-related trip to Mexico!

Well well well, it's been such a long time since my last post! I had sort of thought of making it a bi-weekly thing, but then again, the whole idea was to use this blog to share whenever there was something worth sharing, so the "a blog every two weeks" idea didn't really work.

Anyhow, there's two things I want to write about now. The first one is a trip I made to Mexico in September. It was work related, it was really short, I had just a couple days notice, and I barely had time to deal with work and frantically call whichever friends I could to ask for a flash meeting somewhere close to where I were at the moment (meaning, I wish I could have contacted and met everybody but, hey, I stayed FOUR nights!).


And now, just a biased, superficial glimpse at things that got my attention during those few days I spent in Mexico City, things that, after living away for a few years, seemed rather peculiar to me...
  • Mexico City's got a weight problem. I had to take the subway a few times, and it was so noticeable: about 70% of the people were overweight, and we're not talking discreet love handles here, ok? And before you jump and say anything about me being superficial, just think of the COST of the increase in hypertension and diabetes cases that brings, both on the healthcare system and on the poor Mexicans who might not have insurance or who may just not have easy access to doctors (or confidence in their healthcare system). Really worrying.
  • Catholicism is pretty much everywhere. I mean, of course, what could you expect, we were the colony of a Catholic power. But after living in Beirut, now in Beijing, and visiting a number of Middle Eastern and Asian countries in the last few years, the number of Catholic in-your-face symbols and the hard-to-notice presence of temples to other religions was pretty striking to me. Some 95% of Mexicans consider themselves Christians of some sort (and some 90% consider themselves catholics). Even the Lebanese and Syrians that reached Mexico, immigrants that have provided other Latin American countries with a Muslim element, were overwhelmingly christian. Jews number just around 50'000 (less than 0.05% of the population of the country), although their presence is readily visible in some parts of Mexico City (which boasts some 20 synagogues). And yet, pervasive Catholicism notwithstanding, on March 16th 2007 same sex couples could start registering their "sociedad de convivencia", which gave them basically the same rights as heterosexual couples that have cohabited for 5 years.
  • The native element: Indians. Making up more than 10% of the population, belonging to more than 50 different identities, and speaking more than 60 languages belonging to more than 10 different linguistic families, in Mexico City (and many other places) you'll unfortunately find them at the lower end of the social scale, many of them begging, like these woman at the right side of the entrance to the church. Even though in recent years there's been a lot more attention given to indigenous populations and cultures, out of those 60+ languages, some 20 are spoken and understood only by the eldest of their group, and some other 20 are spoken only by the eldest, understood (but not spoken) by people of middle age, and neither spoken nor understood by the younger generation. That is, a full 40 DIFFERENT ways of expression are on their way to extinction. Add that to the prevalence of ONE religion and the invisibility or assimilation of other cultural groups, and arguing for Mexico as a diverse multicultural country becomes rather theoretical (though true in the strictest and narrowest of interpretations, of course)...


  • My home! Well, my parents' home, anyhow. Located in traditional Coyoacán, which used to be a small town before hungry Mexico City swallowed it whole, still keeps its quiet, placid atmosphere (except on Sundays, when the main plaza finds itself flooded by visitors and hawkers). Old villas, stone churches, tree-lined cobblestone streets, small squares, book shops with a spiritual or alternative slant (although finding a poster ad in one of them for "sacred geometrical home systems that reduce earthquakes effects by 50%" was a bit too much), it's always been a relief for me to go for a stroll after a busy day, or on a quiet Saturday morning. After all this years, it is somewhat more crowded (especially during weekend afternoons), but it still is home, definitely, and that sense of wonder I had exploring the area, when we moved in some 20 years ago, is still there.



It was short, it was busy, I saw precious few friends, and barely managed to dedicate some time to my closest family members. But it was well worth it having my biological clock have a 13 hour zone change twice in 7 days. And, I still did have a day in San Francisco on the way back, which provided well deserved rest, fun, and probably the best vegan food I've EVER had (at Café Gratitude). (big thanks to my friends in SF!).

Next posting: A live art festival in Beijing, too alternative to receive much publicity lest the police decide "tickets were sold out" (never mind it was a free entry festival).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

a habib's birthday


My habib's birthday deserved a four day celebration. We didn't organise any party or anything similar, unlike we used to do in Lebanon (somehow, the lack of a balcony and of the Mediterranean Sea breeze takes the charm out of it...), so I woke him up at 5am on his birthday with Las Mañanitas and a special book he'd been wanting for a long time, then took him to choose his next gift, then took him for dinner at Beijing's first ever restaurant with authentic Mexican food, and simply tried to accommodate his every whim no-questions-asked four days (now, how many of you get THAT for your birthday?).

But, rituals ARE an important part of every celebration and relationship, so we also went to have a drink at one of our favourite places in Beijing: Green Tea House. What can I say, we love the place: an extremely stylish, minimalist zen-style decor restaurant-bar, tea-infused creative cuisine, an elegant atmosphere and attentive service; an elongated white dining room with a single long, slender black table, flanked by black chairs with uberlong elegant backs stretching way up, and more private areas next to the windows where you recline or sit with legs crossed to relax and dine. AND... champagne with gold leaf at the bar, which barely sits 6 people. a 6 person bar? champagne? gold leaf? I know, sounds snobbish, but it's one of those places we've chosen to dress up for, go, sit surrounded by a nicely designed space, look into the eyes of the person you're sharing your life with, share a glass (or two) of champagne in long glasses with sparkles of gold floating in, and simply... share.

And, my habib still had a wild night out with friends at the usual night-club, and next day a delicious (and slightly TOO abundant) Middle-eastern lunch, with the tastes of fattoush, tabbouleh, hummus, baba ghanouj, kaak with sumac, Beirut, Aleppo, sunsets by the sea and old mosques. In a way, excluding his book and tennis shoes, the whole celebration was as much a gift for him as for me.

Until next time. Peace.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Cambodia at last! Final post: one last Cambodian surprise, a quiet night in Singapore


As you've seen, Cambodia offered us wonder after wonder, one unique experience after the next, and our last day there could be no exception. That day we were supposed to visit another temple (Banteay Srei), a lake nearby (Tonle Sap) and a big reservoir (the Western Baray).

Let me start "backwards". The Western Baray was... a huge water reservoir. Huge, by all means, some 8 x 2km, built for providing water for the area. But beyond its size, and after the marvels we'd seen... well, we didn't take more than 10 minutes to tick it as "seen" and leave.

Now, the lake... we took a whole tour around, which lasted at least an hour. There were floating houses, a floating school, a floating christian church, and even a floating "research centre", which held little more than souvenirs made in China, a submerged cage holding way too many half starved fish for the entertainment of tourists throwing food in, and another cage with some 7 crocodiles which could make anyone feel sorry for the miserable life they had. A number of Cambodians of Vietnamese origin were going around in frail boats peddling bananas, and whatever they could, for a dollar a piece. The water of the lake was brown with mud, and there were a number of boats gleefully polluting the lake with deafening motors. We were asked for a tip for our boat driver. We had payed quite a sum (by Cambodian standards) for the ride, so we were stunned to find out that the driver made next to nothing and lived on tips. It was a very enlightening experience, if not a pleasant one.

And now, Banteay Srei. That, ladies and gentlemen, was a genuine surprise, and after everything we had seen already, that was certainly no easy feat. First, the facts: built in the 10th century and dedicated to Shiva, commissioned by a Brahman, and subject to a major and systematic restoration effort in the 30's, Banteay Srei (or Citadel of Women) was the climax of our temple roaming.



The complex itself is not that big, but what catches your eye, first of all, is the colour: the temple is made of some pinkish stone that gives the place a very different look from other temples. Then, you approach, and when you finally get close to the gates, walls and interior of the temple, you discover what makes this one unique: the carvings and reliefs are probably the most exquisite in Angkor (at least from this layman's point of view), and not only that, practically every surfaced is covered with gods, goddesses, demons, flowers, diverse motifs, all of them intricate, all of them done with such meticulous care, and in such abundance... This was a temple where your eyes had just too much to absorb, darting from wall to wall, from lintel to gate, from face to hand to beast to dancer... We simply couldn't stay long enough to take it all in, to understand the fractal like beauty of the temple, where every closer look took you into a realm of new and surprising detail, yet where the sum of the parts told a story too, with scenes from different myths jumping at you from the slender structures. A total delight.




That day, when leaving Cambodia, the sun shone on the wet ground below, reflecting with a surprising silver cast on dozens of pools, providing a relaxing and beautiful closing scene for our trip to Cambodia.


When we got to Singapore we didn't do much anymore. We were lucky to get a room with a view to the recently inaugurated Buddha Tooth Relic Museum and Temple, and with that image, we went to sleep, to go back home the next day.



This was a trip to "compensate" for our failed Tibet plan. This was planned in a hurry. Yet this has given me enough to write six posts, to take 211 photos and 48 videos, and to finally fulfill a dream I first had some 10 years ago. I'm happy.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

a 6th anniversary dinner

A 6th anniversary dinner

Since our anniversary fell on a Monday, we decided to just have a simple toast at home that day, and have a long and enjoyable dinner on Saturday (July 28th). And how did that go? First of all, I booked a table at The Courtyard: one of Beijing’s best restaurants and, no less important, one with direct views of the East Gate of the Forbidden City. Since I was calling a whole week in advance I got to book the ONE table with prime views, right next to a floor to ceiling window.

Step two was… talking with the restaurant’s master chef, Ray Lim, whom I had happened to meet while I was a student in China (a long, long time ago) and asking him to prepare a special dinner for two, a VEGAN dinner, that is. He was a bit worried (especially about dessert! “you mean, no eggs? nor butter???”,), but he took the challenge, I gave no other indications except that everything be vegan, and entrusted him 100% with our anniversary dinner!

And step three… was arriving at the place to enjoy a scrumptious dinner, at possibly one of the most romantic spots in the city. And since it was SO delicious, we want to share that with you! Some of the pics don't show the dish as it was presented, the food was so good I'd start eating before I'd remember to take a picture! And the pictures aren't that good (and my descriptions are probably lacking in ingredients and details...) I'm afraid, but then again, the whole point of this blog is sharing, so here!

1. Cold Entrée: Gazpacho watermelon soup, with sun dried tomatoes, herbs, and a dash of tabasco. Honest, when he said “watermelon” I worried a bit, but the taste was so amazing my mouth’s watering again!
2. Hot Entrée: Risotto, with a slightly creamy texture and delicately placed on top of a half tomato on a spinach-based sauce, with asparagus, a thin just slightly fried banana slice and a kiwi-avocado sherbet on top. Another hit that looked suspicious yet had me raving over it.

3. Main Course: Vegetables (including oriental ones I can't name), caramelised onions, on a HUGE, juicy, flavourful Portobello mushroom.

4. Dessert: very finely crushed ice flavoured with tiny bits of peaches, kiwi and other sweet yet delicate fruits, with some liquor I couldn’t quite place. Cool, light, and just the right ending for a fantastic dinner.

As for the wines, we had a glass of New Zealand white wine, and a glass each of Basque and Chilean red (and I’m sure the connoisseurs amongst you are shocked at my simply naming the countries/regions of origin, but I can’t remember the names of the wines… maybe we did have a glass too many? LOL).
The setting, the delicious food, the views, the knowledge that it was a dinner prepared just for us… it was one fine way to celebrate the beginning of our 7th year. Salud!

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cambodia at last! Part V: a balloon ride, a thousand lingas, a reclining Buddha and a waterfall

WARNING: video "intense" blog, FIVE OF THEM!

Our 4th day in Cambodia was pretty intense too. Actually, the whole trip was SO intense, I can't believe how you could do all in a quick weekend trip to Siem Reap... for us, 5 days were JUST enough, like, barely!


So, our 4th day started with... a balloon ride! About 1km from Angkor Wat, a huge yellow balloon rises high up, giving you a wonderful 15 minute ride. We were pretty excited about this thing, and even though Angkor Wat was not that easy to see in the distance (especially with all the sunlight, even early in the morning), the views of the green lush ground below, with the water shimmering and bright thanks to the sun, and just that moment of... peace, contemplation and excitement once above was well worth it. Truly awesome. In the video, Angkor Wat is exactly in the middle (not sure the quality will let you appreciate it, though).


Once we were done with that, we headed for Cambodia's most sacred mountain, Phnom Kulen, through long and winding jungle roads. The goal: a reclining Buddha inside a temple atop the mountain. To be honest, we have seen our share of reclining Buddhas, and sacred mountains, and truth be said this one was neither particularly impressive nor beautiful, though of course that doesn't make it any less sacred for Cambodians. The place was hot, the dirt road leading to the temple gave the place a dry, unkempt appearance. Some stray dogs added to the roughness of the scene. We enjoyed the visit, but what made it special was, when leaving the temple where the Buddha was, going down the steps leading down the temple to the ground, there were these old women, beggars, sitting, waiting. And amongst them was an old man, blind, who apparently could sing. So we asked the guide to ask him to sing something (we felt that giving money for a song was a bit more dignified than simply throwing bills into an extended hand). The song was... well, you better hear in the video. It moved us, even without knowing what he was singing. Anyhow, we figured that it was probably just some religious song, or a traditional one, or maybe one about the sorrow of not being able to see. But when we asked the guide to translate, he said the old man was asking Buddha for him to be born, in his next life, blessed with sight. Wow. We didn't expect that, and it did provoke a sudden and unexpected pang (because it was painful) of compassion.




Once we left the temple, we headed for a more "watery" part of the tour: the Thousand Linga River, or Kbal Spean. When you approach, you just see an average sized river in the mid of the jungle. Even when you get close, you don't quite see what's so special. And then, your eyes adapt, they get used to the patterns the water creates, and you see them... row upon row of lingas, Hindu phallic symbols, covering the whole riverbed! And you know, the symbols, in and of themselves, may not be that impressive, but in toto, when you see them as part of a gigantic effort to cover the riverbed, and representing one thousand phalli exploding and releasing their energy into the river flowing downhill, THAT's impressive (and marvelously worded, as the same could be said in a most uncouth way, of course!).




Finally we headed for our last stop: the waterfall of Phnom Kulen. Not to big, but definitely very refreshing, as the temperature was still damn high. And nature, and Buddha, decided to give us a parting gift for our last stop. What nature gave us was, besides the lovely setting, butterflies! so many of them! and we happened to take a break right next to a boulder where water had formed tiny "ponds" where the butterflies would go and drink! It was such a spectacle, so soothing, so hypnotic... We stared quite a while, enraptured...


And what Buddha gave us... another kind of show alright: one by one young monks, in bright orange and red robes, appeared and made their way jumping from boulder to rock to clearing to make it to the waterfall, and enjoy a refreshing day out! It was really cool watching these young monks just having fun and enjoying "a day off at the waterfall", a real surprise!


And so, this post ends. Next (and last on the "Cambodia Series"), one of the most beautiful temples of Angkor (Banteay Srei), lake Tonle Sap, our flight back to Singapore, and our last night there! Until next Sunday!

Monday, July 23, 2007

6th Anniversary

Ladies and Gentlemen… here’s a toast… to the 6th anniversary of my habib and me crossing paths!

The HOW: believe it or not, chatting on the internet on a Sunday afternoon, meeting on the afternoon of a Monday, having a second date THAT SAME EVENING, and never letting go off him since!

The WHEN: the online meeting, a Sunday 2001. The “off-line” meeting, the following.

The WHY: after two hours of deep, honest talk at our very first date, and after a more intense second date, I marked the guy as well worth holding onto. Still holding onto. And planning to hold onto for as long as possible!

The BEST moments: there’s been a great number of unique moments, but to mention just a few that come to mind right now… watching the moon set in Santorini’s caldera for our 3rd anniversary; exchanging rings at sunset in front of the Dead Sea in Jordan for our 2nd anniversary; scuba-diving for the first time in our lives, in Aqaba, Jordan; sharing a birthday with close friends, eating strawberries covered with brown sugar, in our balcony in Beirut… and many, many more.

The WORST moments: driving my poor habib repeatedly up the wall while learning to live together for the first time in Beirut; escaping from a bank being held up by a guy with a bomb belt in Beirut, only to see he had not run out with me, and waiting in anguish on the street until he finally was let out with others.

The OTHERWORLDLY moments: when my habib writes, and reads his writings to me; sometimes I'm moved, sometimes I marvel, sometimes I'm baffled because I can't follow, but I always get this feeling of creation taking place, creation beyond my comprehension even, but wondrous creation nevertheless.

The RULES: 1. To let each other to pursue personal and professional happiness and fulfillment freely, and always to support that quest, never hindering it because of jealousy or selfishness. 2. To not lie, ‘cause real and solid things can be built only on truth and trust. 3. To not take love for granted; to feed it, create it, tend it.

The FUTURE: Looking full of more love, more adventure, more experiences, more dreams come true.

So, cheers! The images: a Southeast Asian statue of Guanyin, given to me as a present by my habib for as a birthday gift, watching over two little Japanese sake cups (bought by my habib in Hong Kong for us) with which we toasted, in Beijing, to the beginning of the 7th year!



Sunday, July 22, 2007

Gaudí at the Capital Museum



Because we were not going to miss an Antoni Gaudí exhibition at Beijing's Capital Museum (首都博物馆) - one of our favourite museums in the city -, right? After all, his architecture is pretty well known, but it's not that often that you can get close to his decorative art! 



Cambodia at last! Part IV: Ta Prohm (or "Tomb Raider's Temple")


After all the wonders we'd seen, we still had AT LEAST one more to do: Ta Prohm. A Buddhist temple built in the 12th century and dedicated to the mother of the then king, it must have been an incredibly busy temple, with thousands of people inhabiting it, taking care of it, worshipping, wandering along its numerous corridors, halls and shrines... halls and shrines that, today, have been overtaken by roots, tenacious trees and verdant jungle.

This is pretty much how you'd expect a newly discovered temple in the middle of the jungle to look like. Of course, nature hasn't been left to go as wild as it could or, more accurately, it's been fought back a bit, so it may be visited once more, though this time the temple admirers consist of groups of camera toting Japanese, Chinese, Russians, Spaniards... and us two, of course.




Unfortunately, this temple was used for a scene in Tomb Raider. Yes, we actually watched that movie, and even though neither of us could remember a scene that included the temple, we do remember recoiling in horror at the ease with which ancient monuments were destroyed in that movie's plot... but that's another story. Anyhow, apparently, Angelina Jolie's appearance in the film AND at this temple means that some 95% of what our guide (and, probably, everybody else's guides) had to say included the words "Tomb Raider", "Angelina Jolie", "film" or "famous". The other 5% was rubbish of other sort. So we just tuned off to what he had to say, and tuned in to what surrounded us...




We stared in disbelief, imagining how beautiful the place must have looked like, how imposing, and picturing it along all the other wonders we had already seen... looking at the strong doors, the towers, corridors that must have lead into prayer halls while capturing some sense of dramatic tension, playing with carvings, perspective and light to provoke awe when entering their sacred spaces... and then your eyes would focus on the tree pushing its way right through a lintel, on another one perched high atop a hall, its roots hugging and crushing the building beneath, the jungle pushing through, pulsating into, across, over what once were hallmarks of civilisation, completely unhindered by tons of rock carved by thousands. Truly eye-opening how such a beautiful feat of technique and power had become an equally beautiful show of nature's power.


We explored the place for quite a while, it was so much bigger and complex than you could imagine, all of it hiding in the jungle.

Afterwards, we still visited Sra Srang, or the Pool of Ablutions, a huge reservoir which provided a nice and cool break from our "temple adventure". And at night we had dinner at "La Noria Restaurant" to watch a shadow puppet show. It was an interesting experience, although not an overly artistic one: little children are taught traditional Cambodian arts (like shadow puppet theatre and folk dances), so what you see is a lot of good-will from non profit organisations trying to give uneducated or maimed Cambodians a chance at self-sustenance, quite a bit of a lack of technique (after all, most true masters are dead by now), and an ambivalent feeling towards this art-cum-commercial product which nevertheless brings extra cash money into really needy hands...


Until next Sunday!

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Cambodia at last! Part III: Faces, frogs, and shadow puppets...

It's Sunday and, as promised in my last e-mail, it's time for another post! As for the title ("Faces, frogs and shadow puppets"), you'll soon see the why behind it...

FACES

After the Bayon we still visited a few more places. I know, Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom, and then still more? But it was still early (we had got up really early, to avoid the heat), and still had some energy left. So we visited the Elephant Terrace (which was a sort of viewing stand for ceremonies, the Prasat Suor Prat (or Temple of the Tightrope Dancers), and the Terrace of the Leper King. Now, the terrace itself did not seem that remarkable (especially after what we had seen), but, if you went down one of the sides of the terrace, you enter a narrow corridor formed by the terrace and an outer wall. Now, that corridor was something: you went in, and you found yourself cut off from the outside world, and all you had were these walls with row upon row of gods and demons, nagas and garuda-like figures, some placid, some terrifying. The secluded atmosphere gave you the feeling you were in some sort of lost treasure or adventure film, approaching some mysterious and secret temple...


FROGS

After that, and lunch, it was time to go back to the hotel. But, since that implied going back more or less the same way that we had reached the terraces, I asked the guide to stop at the Bayon. I so wanted another look at that marvelous temple. So we went back, got off the car, I chose a quiet spot overlooking the temple across the moat, and admired it once more, in silence. Then, when I took some steps closer to the water, to get a better angle... dozens of small frogs started leaping from the shore into the water! and the most amusing thing was that the whole shore of the moat was packed with tiny brown frogs, so when I started walking along the shore, I kept seeing dozens and dozens of frogs jumping (almost invisible to me, because of their colour) into the water. The visual impression was most strange, and it's uniqueness befitted the temple so well!


SHADOW PUPPETS

On our way back, my habib remembered that there was a puppet workshop in some small temple on the outskirts of Siem Reap, and we decided that we still had just enough energy left to go and take a look. After all, the puppets they made there were being used for the only shadow puppet theatre in town. We asked around, and we finally made it to Wat Preah Inkosei, a temple with somewhat spacious grounds (for its size) and, in a nondescript corner, a wooden shack, the House of Peace workshop, a German funded workshop attended by an old woman and her cat. It was a simple place, with a screen on one side (to show how the puppets looked), and leather puppets representing all the required characters in the Reamker (the Cambodian version of the Hindu Ramayana): Shiva, Hannuman, Vishnu... we bought a Hannuman and a Krishna. After Cambodia's bloody civil war episode, it's interesting to see all the efforts being done, with support from the international community, to revive the arts, and to give Cambodians (many of them handicapped) a chance at rebuilding their country. Unfortunately, many of those efforts seem sometimes so... insufficient, and not because of lack of effort, but because of the scale of damage the Pol Pot era brought upon Cambodians...


Next week: The Tomb Raider Temple! (the irony of the title will become clear, next week!)

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Cambodia at last! Part II: Bayon


After our impressive visit to Angkor (after which you feel, "what else could there be that can amaze me as much?"), we went on to our second visit of the day: Angkor Thom (a fortified city built by King Jayavarman VII, 12th century).
First, the approach: our car drove up to the south gate of the city. There, the road leading up to the gate was flanked by long nagas being held by deities and demons, a clear reference to the churning of the ocean of milk, from the Ramayana. It's a long and quite fascinating story, which we actually saw represented in Bangkok as a traditional Khon theatre play. Suffice it to say that the naga had been tricked into coiling around an upside-down mountain in the ocean of milk, and deities and demons were pulling it back and forth to churn a wonderful potion that would render the gods powerful. It's one of the most famous stories of the Ramayana, and it's imagery was so vivid, I was really excited to see this scene at the gate. To the right of the road you could see a sot of pond, quite a big one, actually, where some boys were tending some water buffalo. The grass was so green, the light reflected on the water with a myriad of reflections, the whole scene was so placid... and then, you'd turn your head to the gate. Oh, the GATE... you just look at it. Need I say more about the gate itself?


After such a wonderful introduction to the site, we continued down the road, finally reaching IT: The Bayon, the temple with TWO HUNDRED AND SIXTEEN FACES. It was, by far, the place that... I don't know, it cast a spell on me. It became my favourite, in a strange and very emotional way, it was THE temple for me. The others were amazing, this one was MAGIC, utter craziness, stepping into it was, definitely and without exaggeration, like stepping into a different dimension. There were carvings on the walls surrounding the first level, carvings that depicted different aspects of life at the time yet, for me, looking at them and walking AROUND the main building was just like wetting my appetite, holding back a bit, before letting yourself be engulfed by IT.



The temple, which is surrounded by water, consists of three levels, the first two on a square base, while the third one is round, and there it is where you find yourself surrounded and being watched by, from every angle, monumental heads, with a half-smiling half-meditating look. It's just so otherworldly. Being the place I liked the most in Cambodia, I find myself lacking words to describe it. When you're there, standing, with a head as tall as a man (or bigger) looking back at you, with the three other faces of the head looking at the other 3 cardinal points, you just feel overwhelmed by awe, wonder, disbelief...

So, before I start repeating myself, here are some pics (and a bad vid), which will certainly do a terribly poor job of transmitting the power they project...