Moaning About Moon Cakes

In America, around Christmas and the winter holidays, there are always endless jokes about the ubiquitous, yet terrible tradition that is fruitcake. (I will admit from the start, I have never actually tasted a piece of fruitcake. A look at its heavy brown pastry, dotted with candied fruit brings to mind a slab of concrete with large pebbles strewn throughout. Not appetizing in the least.) And while fruitcake may be a uniquely western thing, terrible pastries at a time of celebration are apparently a global phenomenon.

Here in China, the bane of my fall season is a not-so-lovely little treat called the moon cake.

Moon cake shops start to pop up in early September, seemingly overnight. What was once an empty storefront will suddenly be bursting at the seams with fancy, silk-lined boxes of moon cakes, selling for hundreds and even thousands of RMB. Usually these fly-by-night stores also have a variety of bin-cakes, some wrapped, some not, selling on an individual basis. (It is the Chinese version of WinCo Supermarket bins, down to the fact that people dig through them barehanded. I didn’t dare buy goods out of the open grocery store bins in Idaho and I don’t dare do it here!)

These omnipresent snacks are a part of China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, also known as the Moon Festival. This fall celebration is a popular harvest festival recognized by the Chinese government as an official holiday, meaning all official businesses are closed, schools are closed and many people go on vacation for an entire week. (It’s like a national spring break, but in the fall, and minus the uber-drunk, itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny, yellow polka-dot bikini-clad college students.

Mid-Autumn Festival dates back over 3,000 years to the ancient times of moon worship in China’s Shang Dynasty. I’m pretty sure some of those original moon cakes are still floating around this place, as they don’t seem to have, or need, expiration dates. (Chinese version of the Twinkie?) While it is also sometimes referred to as the Moon Cake Festival, this is less common, but, it does make me think that maybe we should rechristen Christmas and Fruitcake Festival.

The Mid-Autumn Festival is held on the 15th day of the eighth month in the Chinese calendar, which is usually around late September or early October on the Western calendar. It is a date that parallels the autumnal equinox of the solar calendar, when the moon is supposedly at its fullest and roundest. The traditional food of this festival is the moon cake, of which there are many different varieties, and yet none that I want to eat. Whether it is the type with an entire cooked egg yolk in the middle or the one made of five different nuts, none of them are appealing. And this is coming from someone who has a deeply-ingrained love of pastries. Last week, I got two care packages from the States, one from my best friend Shannon and the other from by parents. Both boxes had a variety of goodies inside, but the one place their overlapped was in their containment of chocolate pudding pies. (Together, they could make one of the best Venn Diagrams known to man!) So I am no slouch when it comes to the consumption of sweet treats, but when I bite through the thick breading that makes up the outer layer of the goodie, only to find I have a mouth full of mashed red bean paste, I don’t consider that a win in my book

In the Middle Kingdom, Mid-Autumn Festival is one of the most important holidays of the year; a time when, traditionally, farmers would celebrate the end of the summer harvesting season. Customarily on this day, Chinese family members and friends will gather together to admire the bright mid-autumn harvest moon and eat moon cakes under the moon. (As much as I dislike the dense, hockey-puck-like pastries, they really are all the rage here! I even bought a small package of them for my ayi as a thank-you for her wonderful housekeeping skills

With Mid-Autumn Festival right around the bend and moon cakes on every corner, I’ll be on a mini-blogging hiatus as I head to Bangkok for a week of CLO Training, (I need to find out how to CLO better!) and then on to the wedding of a good friend in Guizhou. I’ll be back with tales of Thailand and continued adventures while In Search of the End of the Sidewalk after Columbus Day.

Until then, 中秋节快乐!Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!

Colorful moon cakes for my ayi

Po’s Stomping Grounds

The Valley of Peace sits just beyond our doorstep here in Chengdu, just an hour by high speed train from the city. Once there it is easy to imagine Po popping out from behind a pillar as he watches epic training battles ensue between the Furious Five.  Wandering amid the ancient Daoist temples and through the heavily forested mountainside, it is a short leap of imagination to envisioning Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, and Crane studying under Shifu and competing to be the best marital artists in all the land, knowing that they must be prepared to defend their treasure from the wicked Tai Lung.

While this “Valley of Peace” may not exist anywhere but in Dreamworks’ Kung Fu Panda, the setting that served as inspiration for the film is just a short high-speed train ride away from our home here in Chengdu. DuJiang Yan, the inspiration for those awe-inspiring backgrounds detailed so thoroughly in the film, is not only a breathtaking bit of scenery in western China, but also home to a ground-breaking (literally) irrigation project undertaken in 250BC, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Before the DuJiang Yan irrigation system was built, the Chengdu plain was dry and infertile, but the area near the Min River flooded every spring, causing continual hardship for those farmers living nearby who relied on the river to nourish their crops. Li Bing, a local governor, is credited with noticing the annual adversity, although one would have to think the farmers were well aware of the issue long before anyone official decided to “notice” it. (I’ll refrain from drawing comparisons between Qin Dynasty bureaucracy and more modern-day political wrangling we will be forced to ingest over the next forty-three days.)

He knew the frigid water came from the melting snowpack in the distant mountains and realized that the river must stay open for trade via shipping and his army’s mobility, but also saw that something must change if the people were to continue to prosper in the Sichuan valley.  (And prosper they must, as the world was waiting with baited breath for the introduction of the infamous, mouth-numbing Sichuan spices that invade my every meal!) Because restricting the water flow was out of the question, Li Bing knew a dam was not an option and had to move on to bigger and more inventive ways of creating a habitable region for his people.  While the 1970’s overused the phrase “think outside the box” to the point where it is painfully cliché, Mr. Li might have been on that bandwagon long before corporate America’s management gurus thrust their geometrical jargon upon us.

With his son by his side, (and with some legends including a dragon, which just makes the whole story a whole lot cooler)  eight years of toil by more than 100,000 laborers created a levee system like none the world had seen. Bamboo cages were filled with rocks, redirecting sections of the river away from the flood zone.(The current tourist attraction at DuJiang Yan shows some of these bamboo wrapped rocks, looking eerily similar to something upper-middle class American housewives would buy for a premium price at Pottery Barn!)

Unlike many of the things man makes today, Li Bing’s irrigation system has withstood the test of time.(This was definitely no IKEA, no tools needed, home improvement project!)  Not only are his hand-dug river channels still funneling water throughout the Sichuan plains today, helping to irrigate thousands of acres of farmland, but the levees were flexible enough to withstand the rocking and rolling of the land when the area became the epicenter of a massive earthquake in 2008. (This being the same quake that made my newly built cement apartment building, 150 miles north in Gansu, split at the seams and crumble in the corners.)

Growing up in the midst of farms (potatoes, sugar beets, corn, wheat, mint…and the list goes on…), I was raised understanding the importance of having adequate water for the crops to prosper. And as a kid, I endured more than one lecture from a perturbed farmer who was unhappy with the McDaniel kids pulling his syphon tubes. (Our fiddling wasn’t malicious; we just wanted to know what agricultural magic made water flow uphill. And sadly, I still can’t explain it. Yes, I know the basic principles of physics that dictate the water’s movement, but much like I know the theoretical physics behind airplanes, I am still partially convinced that it all boils down to fairy dust and hocus-pocus.)

So, another CLO trip is in the books.  A day out at an ancient irrigation system was the perfect foil to life in a giant city for this country girl. I may not have spotted Po and his evil leopard fighting crew, but I did enjoy a nearly perfect fall day in what was definitely a Valley of Peace.

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Pigs and Pancakes and Pantries

Somewhere in northern Maryland (okay, not somewhere, Hagerstown) is a gigantic warehouse that is home to the chattel and baubles of American Foreign Service Officers currently serving in far-flung places (and some less far-flung, but still outside the boarders of Home). I’ve never been to this promised land of left-behind goods, but I can only imagine it is more of a complex than a warehouse.

It is somewhere within this massive storage facility that the majority of my HHE still sits, awaiting shipment to Chengdu. Emails have been sent, hallway conversations have been had and there are many sets of eyes anxiously awaiting a reply about when all of our Idaho possessions will begin their literal slow-boat-to-China journey.

But, in the meantime, we did receive our rather small HHE shipment, coming from the Crystal City mo-partment. I may not have wall hangings or kitchenware, but I do have a few items that will make our Chengdu apartment just step closer to being home for the next two years.

Friday’s shipment brought with it my Christmas tree, 75 bottles of nail polish, our winter coats (as fall seems to have hit just this last weekend, I think those coats came right in time), my adorable and colorful Eastern Market bureau and, of course, the goodies from my epic Costco shopping trip.

I can only imagine what my ayi thought when she came to clean the house today and found the back bedroom now doubles as a pantry. After hauling a giant bookcase in there Friday afternoon, I filled it with all of the important things we’ll need over the next two years: 45 boxes of Kraft mac and cheese, 40 packets of microwave popcorn, 108 cans of Mountain Dew, 21 cans of refried beans, 80 Jell-O pudding cups…and the list goes on. (Having been raised in a church that pushes self-sufficiency and emergency preparedness through food storage, I have to say, none of the Sunday handouts I ever got made it look this tasty! Who needs flour and pinto beans and rice when you can have Fruit Loops and Rice Crispy Treats and loads upon loads of Miracle Whip. Wait, wait. Miracle Whip was probably included on the hand outs.)

So, while my HHE arrival wasn’t everything I had ever dreamed and hoped it would be, I am happy to have a few more of our things with us here in the Middle Kingdom, things to make our spacious, but barren, apartment home.

With a newly arrived box of Bisquick and some maple syrup I ordered from the Beijing commissary, this evening we feasted on “breakfast for dinner.”  Granted, I only have my single welcome-kit frying pan, so while the pancakes slowly browned in that, I scrambled eggs in a sauce pan, which may not be a traditional cooking method, but, you’ll not find me complaining.

Granted, if you give this pig a pancake, she will want syrup, get sticky, need a bath and demand bubbles, but she won’t whine about missing photos and office supplies.

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My Lungs Are Whispering Sweet Words of Gratitude

Lungs like fresh air.  (It’s true. I looked it up on Wikipedia.)

To that end, a day out of Chengdu is a perfect “pulmo-cation” and so I did my CLO-duty and planned a trip to Luo Dai, an ancient city about an hour outside Sichuan’s capital that boasts a mini-Great Wall, horses that take riders around a lake and a tourist-filled street of shopping and photography. (That’s right, I’m making up words again. But, what better way to describe a day long holiday for one’s largest respiratory organ than “pulmo-cation?”)

While the idea was to give people a chance to get out of the city, see some of the surrounding countryside and enjoy the first fall-fall feeling day of the season, the bit of R&R for our lungs was also greatly appreciated. But, instead, some of us decided to punish our lungs with a hike up the small-Great Wall in Luo Dai.  (I always thinking hiking is a good idea. My brain thinks it sounds invigorating and refreshing, but about ten minutes in to whatever excursion I previously thought to be a positive experience, I am mentally cursing myself, with a few of those murmurs escaping my lips.)

As with many Chinese tourist-sites, stairs are the name of the game at Luo Dai. From the base of the hill, Thad and I could see the staircase straddling the ramparts of the wall, headed straight up the mountainside, with no respite until the first large guard tower, which lay at least a million stairs in front of us. At this point though, I was still gung-ho and ready to go! We were out of Chengdu, the weather was cool and misty and I was ready to tackle the challenge.

That all changed about twenty stairs in to the hike when my lungs were starting to ache from (possibly) too much fresh air, my thighs burned with each unevenly spaced stair and gravity started pulling heavier and heavier on my purse carrying our umbrellas, a water bottle, paper for the squatties and other necessities.

But, with more pride than brains sometimes, I continued up the mountain, taking it a stair at a time and pausing every ten or so to catch my breath, shed a layer or sip some quickly disappearing water.

The countryside surrounding the wall was beautiful. Because it had rained overnight, there trees were covered in dew drops and the air had the crisp feeling that tells you autumn is right around the corner. I would love to say it was somewhere we will haul all of our visitors, (you’re coming, right visitors?) but we were sadly disappointed in how commercialized the area is. As we stood to look back at the path we had already traversed (this being between the second and third guard towers on the wall, and really just an excuse for me to let my lungs simmer down a bit), rather than getting an expansive view of the wall, the forests and the sky, we saw rows of tents, set up on the pathway, hawking everything from ice cream and cold noodles to rubber snakes, plastic whistles and canvas shoes. (I think the canvas shoe business is booming on the wall, as I saw more than one Chinese woman ascending in high heels, but then all those coming back down the wall were shod in flats. Maybe one should consider their choice of footwear before undertaking such an outing?)

After the third guard tower, as we faced another steep climb up the final leg of the mountain, my lungs were crying “Uncle” and Thad’s disgust with the endless selling of random crap on the wall got the better of us. We decided it was best to call it a day on the wall and go ride horses instead. Not wanting to backtrack our entire journey (the wall in Luo Dai does not make a circuit, meaning once you reach the end, you must turn around and go back the way you came), so we drew on our Gansu roots and hopped of the beaten (mortared and stoned) path. After crawling down a slick, rickety ladder that went over the side of the wall, we passed through a hole in the wall and found a farmer’s pathway. We knew if we made it back to the lake we would easily find the rest of our group, so down the hill we went, with not quite the grace of mountain goats, but with neither of us ending up on our bums either. (Because of the rain the night before, the dirt path was a bog of red-hued mud that caked on to my tennis shoes, adding a good five pounds to my weight by the time we reached the foot of the hill. I spent quite a while this morning, squatting on the floor of my bathroom with the shower head in hand, trying to get the red-dye of the mud off my cute pink and gray kicks!)

After passing through what was clearly an outdoor chicken slaughter house (the blood and feathers were fresh enough for me to assume the recently deceased chicken was probably the same one staring back at me, comb and all, from a stew placed in the center of our table just an hour later), we came upon the lake and it’s bored looking horses. (Much like a NASCAR driver, these horses spend their days in a continual state of turning left.)

The day continued with a quick loop around the lake on a horse with an unintelligible Sichuan Hua named mount (local dialect, confounding for native Mandarin speakers, which makes it way beyond my subsistence level Chinese abilities)  for me and Thad’s hilariously named steed- Shui Bi (Sprite) and then lunch that included the previously mentioned, recently expired chicken. Then it was back in to town to stroll the “ancient street” in search of Luo Dai trinkets without which I couldn’t survive. (Not surprisingly, there was nothing that fell in to this category.) This old part of town is a hotspot where young women rent costumes from ancient dynasties and then pose in the various courtyards as if they were members of the ruling family. Thad and I were sucked in to numerous photo sessions while we wandered the street. Nothing says anachronism like a Chinese woman attired in a beautiful Qing dynasty gown, sharing the frame with a mud-covered, jean-clad white woman!

While the day ran a bit longer than I had expected, I am chalking this one up to as a CLO-success, as the hour long bus ride back to Chengdu was filled with open-mouth naps, not only on the part of the kids (most of whom scaled the mini-Great Wall as if they were close cousins with a gazelle family), but also by a number of both adults and tour guides. When that many Z’s are needed, I think it counts as a great Saturday!

(And, I am sure our lungs are giving us a standing, pneumo-vation.)

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The Case of the Missing HHE

It may have taken a few months to get the paperwork sorted out, but just a week ago today I was thrilled to announce that I was “Rolling in the Renminbi.” That windfall (okay, windfall may be a bit of an exaggeration, but at least I have employment and a steady source of income) was a high point of the week, leading to a lovely Sunday outing to ChunXi Lu where I treated Thad to the long-promised Pizza Hut meal.

(Pizza Hut may seem like an odd choice for celebrating a new job, and while Pizza Huts in China are fancier than those in America, with waitresses in long white aprons and fancy decorations adorning the restaurant, that is not why we chose to eat pan pizzas for our personal-sized party. Rather, when we were here with Peace Corps, Pizza Hut was the destination for pizza whenever we happened to be called in to Chengdu for a meeting. It was pricey on a Peace Corps budget, so we would plan carefully, weighing the triple threat of quantity we wanted to consume vs. the quantity our stomachs could handle after being without dairy and grease for so long vs. the amount of cash we were going to drop on a single meal.  Now, here on Thad’s Foreign Service salary and my CLO income, we could eat Pizza Hut every day if we wanted. [Ugh! We don’t want.]  So, falling back in to the DINK category, it was off to Pizza Hut where I promised to buy Thad anything he wanted off the menu- although when he went with the popcorn chicken stuffed crust pizza, I did have to question his taste. )

With the successful deposit of my hard-earned  money into our account I thought we’d have smooth sailing for the foreseeable future.

I should have known better.

Monday morning I was greeted with a long-anticipated email from our consulate customs staff member saying our HHE (Foreign Service speak for “everything that was in my Idaho house which has been in storage for the last sixteen months) had arrived in Chengdu and was ready to be delivered to our apartment.


For weeks now I’ve been mentally pacing my office, hoping to hear that our stuff is in town. I’m excited for the wall hangings from Idaho to help disguise my cement walls. I’m itching to read the piles of books that I know are in plastic Rubbermaid tubs, just waiting to line up neatly on the shelves of my apartment.  I’m uncharacteristically enthusiastic about the pots and pans and plates and pitchers awaiting homes in my Chinese kitchen. And I’m dying to get my hands on my school supplies to make my office at work not only more colorful, but also more organized and efficient.

With a twinkle of excitement in my eye, I dropped by the cubicle of the staff member in charge of shipment deliveries this afternoon. My excuse for popping in was that I wanted to verify the time of tomorrow’s delivery, but in reality, I just wanted to look at the white board that says “Ross” and “October 14” that hangs in his office, announcing to the world that I will soon have a complete household.

This was a poor choice.

Rather than walking away with the same twinkle in my eye, I walked out of his cubicle holding back a tear. There will be no massive HHE shipment tomorrow. There will be one box.

That’s right. One, single, lonely box.

After a bit of mild panic at Thad’s desk, an almost meltdown in my bosses office (which took every ounce of my power to contain, but as nothing less than a professional, I did my best to hide the tears of frustration with a smile and a whole lot of note-taking) and a few deep breaths behind the closed door of my office,  it was time to get to the bottom of the mystery of my missing HHE. (I really could have used the detective help of Scooby-Doo today. If only that goofy dog and his slightly-stoned partner in mystery-solving were here to follow a green slimy monster through a deserted amusement park, eventually unmasking him as the horrible customs official who was hiding my goods.)

A bit of digging revealed a much more bureaucratic bad-guy: paperwork.

It seems that when Thad scheduled our whole pack-out from the mo-partment, he told them that we also had a lot of items in storage that would need to be shipped to Chengdu at the same time. The operator that he spoke with said that wouldn’t be a problem, so we left it at that. Somewhere between that discussion and the forms though, this extra piece of information was lost in the shuffle and the operator never added the note about our other boxes that were resting in storage.

None of this came to light until today, when I saw the packing slip that was written out for a single box.

After sixteen week in Chengdu, we will now wait another eight (or more…it is hard to be optimistic at this point) weeks to be able to finally settle in and completely make our apartment home.

Tomorrow I will get my giant box of goodies, most of them items I collected on my shopping spree to Costco in the weeks leading up to our departure, and for this I am grateful, as I may need those bulk-sized boxes of chocolate pudding cups and the case of brownie mixes to get me through the frustration of not getting family photos and holiday decorations for another two months.

Here’s to countless more weeks of white walls, pineapple shaped lamps and a set of dishes that rivals those we had when we were first married…

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Rolling in Renminbi

I don’t want to make money; I just want to be wonderful.  -Marilyn Monroe


We’ve been in China for fifteen weeks now, which means I’ve been on the job for thirteen weeks. (Knowing the exact number of weeks we’ve been living in Sichuan has nothing to do with a countdown to another placement or some crazy obsession with days and hours and minutes spent here, but rather a patient ticking off of the rotations of the sun on the prison wall containing my HHE. We got an email from the mysterious Mr. Xu this last week that told us our worldly goods have made it to Chengdu, but won’t be released until someone goes down and pays a rather large sum of cash for them. Customs fees? Bribes? Ransom money? I have no idea, but I feel like maybe this transaction is going to involve a large silver suitcase, a key to an anonymous locker in a bustling train station and a lot of ear-piece wearing folks in dark suits  and Ray-Ban sunglasses. All of this, at least in my imagination, for a quirkily painted dresser I bought at a flea market in DC, some jars of peanut butter and boxes of Cheerios made in the epic Costco run and a few boxes of clothing that I haven’t seen in well over a year and will probably dispose of anyway.)

But, fifteen weeks and thirteen on the job. No big deal, right? Except, I hit a major milestone Thursday.


That’s right. It took thirteen weeks and no small amount of extra work on the parts of my management officer and the consulate’s office management specialist, but payday has arrived!

Marilyn Monroe may have been content with being wonderful, but I’d rather be wonderful *and* have the cash-o-la to buy a bauble or two to accessorize said wonderfulness. I firmly believe one can never have enough purses, necklaces or shoes. To which end, I’ve been spending Thad’s hard earned paycheck, but now, I’ve got not only his, but mine as well!

I’ve promised Thad a fancy evening at Pizza Hut to celebrate my new-found position as a bread-winner in the Ross household, but our party plans have been put on hold for a few days, as Thad has been serving as the social sponsor for a new family who has moved in to our apartment complex. That means trips to the airport (possibly putting him within yards of our hostage-held belongings), dinners at neighborhood restaurants, trips to grocery stores and cell phone outlets and just general introductions to the fabulous area in which we live. Plus, with the earthquake in Yiling on Friday, he had to go in and work for a few hours today, making sure any Americans in the affected areas are safe and accounted for. Needless to say, payday pizza has been put on hold for a bit. But, pizza and possibly the world’s most elaborate salad do await us. Sometime. Soon.

While you don’t need to call me up if you are gangsta’, I do like fancy and you are definitely free to get dancey, so, like Pink and her pop-punk party crashes, won’t you come on, come on and raise your glass.  I am once again a wage-earning member of society.

Forty-Nine Shades of Gray (and Two Green Turtles)

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…a clear Chengdu sky?

If I can see the birds, and especially the planes, something is just not right in the capital of Sichuan. Most days consist of a gray-tinged sky, where a bit of sunlight pokes through, though never enough to make those ethereal shafts of light that make one think the Heavens are spotlighting their favorite terra-firma creations. It just doesn’t happen here.

So, when I woke up Sunday morning I thought I must still be dreaming. I usually don’t bother to pull the heavy curtains on our floor-to-ceiling bedroom windows since the sunrise isn’t a painful shock each morning, as the sky just takes on a lighter shade of gray as morning progresses. (It isn’t on my “too-read” list, as I really have no interest, but now I am starting to wonder if the chart-topping Fifty Shades of Gray isn’t written about Chengdu. It would be the perfect name for a novel set in our lovely, if rather polluted, city. After Sunday though, I’d have to re-title it Forty-Nine Shades of Gray.)

As I rolled out of bed (in a truly graceful manner, my normal morning bed-dismount usually entails a barrel roll and a bit of grumbling) I realized that I could see the sun- the actual yellow glowing globe in the sky. It wasn’t just a haze covered, distant light, but a heat-emitting, bright and soul-warming sun. This unprecedented event called for a change to my normal weekend morning routine. Rather than sitting on my living room floor, at the coffee table, with an ever-coveted bowl of cereal covered in no more than a necessary amount of shelf milk and the world at my fingertips via WordPress and Facebook, I left the laptop closed and pulled a chair on to the balcony. (I’d love to say my porch chairs were out there, to sit in on a regular basis, but after fifteen weeks at post, we have yet to receive our HHE, which is State Department-ese for “all our junk.” I’ve been told this shipment is somewhere between Shanghai and Chengdu, but that is a heck of a lot of potential area in which the crates may be on the move. Maybe next week?)

Not wanting to let such an unprecedented day go to waste, Thad and I decided to visit the People’s Park in town. Most Chinese towns of a decent size have a People’s Park, and parks here have a whole different flavor than in the US. Chinese parks are not giant expanses of soft grass where college kids meet to play Frisbee golf on the weekends or soon-to-be-married couples go to get engagement pictures taken or where young families spend an inexpensive afternoon with a cooler filled with sandwiches and soda and where their kids learn the finer points of mid-air swing dismounts. Rather, Chinese parks are places to stroll on paths, rest and drink tea at the ubiquitous tea houses, munch on snacks peddled by vendors and take kids for a spin or two on carnival rides.

It may not have been the Katherine Albertson Park in Boise or Caldwell Memorial Park, but Chengdu’s People’s Park made for an entertaining afternoon adventure.

We started by wandering around the man-made lake that is the center of the public space. There were both rowboats and motorized boats available for rent (Why would one choose to row?), but Thad gently steered us away from those lines. (I actually went and looked at prices and eyed the not-so-long lines, which I know he was aware of, and yet there was no question about cost or wait time. It was as if he didn’t care because there was no way he was getting in a boat, even if it were free and immediate. Maybe next time…)

While the main part of the park was pretty packed with people also enjoying the clear skies and break from the heat of summer, there were several off-shoot areas that were less crowded. One was filled with orchid plants (not in bloom, but still a relaxing area) and another had large terrarium-type pots.

These areas were nice to walk through and a good break from the crowds of the city, but the real fun started when I spotted a sign that said “Children’s Paradise.”  Who could pass up a shot at Paradise? (It may not be the legendary land that John Milton imagined in the 17th century, but I am sure that just like his winding tale of Man’s fall from grace, “epic” would be an apt descriptor.) As we made our way back around the lake and through the gauntlet of competing karaoke machines (no less than a dozen within fifty yards of each other, each turned up to full volume with singers belting out their favorite dissonant Chinese folksongs), I knew we were on the right path now.

Children’s Paradise might be more appropriately named Rusty’s Paradise, as the array of carnival rides had more iron oxide than paint on them, but who lets a little thing like lockjaw hold them back from an afternoon of spinning and whirling? Not this Foreign Service family with recently updated tetanus shots!

Because two tall blondes don’t stand out enough in the middle of the Middle Kingdom, we decided to take a spin on this strange ride that followed a track about eight feet off the ground. Each cart had a steering wheel that let the riders turn the cart 360 degrees, it had a power switch that let the riders come to a complete stop at any time, and my favorite amenity, a button to change the “radio station.” (From the ground, this didn’t look too high, but as someone with an ever-growing fear of heights, I would like to mention that eight feet is a lot higher when you are eight feet off the ground than it is when you are looking up at it. Thad, ever the helpful one, reassured me that if we fell, we would only break some bones, not die. Thank you for that.)

This little cart excursion was followed by one of my all-time favorite amusement park rides- the Tilt-o-Whirl! I may be terrified of heights and embarrass myself my crab-crawling across the glass floor of the Macau Tower, 1,000 feet in the air,  but I can spin in circles all day long. Dizzy rides are the best rides! People’s Park’s Tilt-o-Whirl, like everything else, was rusty, and the seatbelts didn’t work, but we figured centrifugal force would keep us from flying onto some sharp, rusty chunk of metal. With no worries, we paid our ten yuan each and boarded the ride, as the only riders, tilting and whirling to our hearts’ content.

Feeling pleased with our Children’s Paradise stint, we wandered through the rest of the park, watching several different dance groups and strolling through the aisles of toys and souvenirs for sale. At one such kiosk, movement caught my attention and I turned, only to see a metal stand on which hung a bunch of tiny plastic bottles, each one containing a single baby turtle. What?!?  Those are living creatures put in itty-bitty jars with just a bit of water and no food.

Michelle to the rescue!

I took it upon myself to “save” two of these tiny creatures. After examining my choices and picking the two that still looked the most robust, Thad paid for my purchases and some turtle food and we decided it was time to head home. My new buddies, Gong Bao and Ji Ding (their names are Chinese for kung pao chicken, literally meaning Palace Style and Chicken Cutlet) needed a new tub filled with fresh water and a roadside brick on which to bask. I’m going to give these miniscule reptilian family members a palatial home that lives up to ol’ Gong Bao’s moniker. (Now, if only these little guys last longer than my goldfish did. I had to convince my niece, who met my goldfish via Facetime, that she couldn’t see them again because they are out playing with their fish friends.)

While I miss the acres upon acres of grass, just waiting for me to throw a blanket on it and lounge away an afternoon with a book, my Idaho park excursions never entailed a discussion of our chances of getting tetanus or how to care for tiny turtles. Chalk this one up for the Chinese.

(No people or animals were harmed in the adventures of this entry.)

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