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Archive for the ‘Xian’ Category

Last look at China

I keep thinking about the differences between China and Japan. It’s a hard comparison to make. They have so many things in common, including the characters they use for writing. I was astonished to realize I could read Japanese numbers because I learned the Chinese numbers for mah jong. I was comfortable in China because I was sheltered by being in the CCS group.. Here, entirely alone, I am actually more comfortable. First, there is so much more English usage here. Granted a lot of it is totally unintelligible, but there is also a lot of good information–street signs, subway and railway station signs, many things is stores. Also there is much more use of arabic numerals. If I see a poster advertising an art show, I can recognize the work of art, figure out the dates when it will be shown and if I am lucky, the name of the facility will be in Enlish. That’s all good information.

Then there are the little things: not carrying a water bottle all the time; being able to drink water from a fountain in the park; being able to use a western toilet in most places; not worrying about where to put the toilet paper; not having to inspect money when you receive it. I haven’t seen anyone doing it here except the money changers who inspect my American bills. There are beggars and homeless people here, but no children being used for begging; no persistent beggars; and I no longer have those dollar signs on my forehead.

Before I leave the subject of China entirely I want to show you the facilities at the Cross Cultural Solutions home base.

My bed. It was comfortable and I slept well.

My bed. It was comfortable and I slept well.

The building. We were on the third and fourth floors.

The building. We were on the third and fourth floors.

My balcony. I sat out there to write these posts.

My balcony. I sat out there to write these posts.

The shower. Good hot water. I would have liked a few more inches around

The shower. Good hot water. I would have liked a few more inches around

The bathroom. Good size.

The bathroom. Good size.

Hedgehog dumplings

Hedgehog dumplings

Another dinner at CCS

Another dinner at CCS

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Last dinner in China

These are the nine dishes, as I remember them:

  1. Spinach with walnuts. Spinach cooked with light sauce. Walnuts boiled and skin removed so they were white.

  2. Lotus root salad with thinly sliced carrots, mushrooms and Chinese cabbage.

  3. Chicken with cashew nuts.

  4. Beef with green peppers

  5. Glazed sweet potatoes

  6. Dates with sticky rice stuffing

  7. Corn in batter cooked like a pizza and sliced

  8. Thin rice noodles with thickened sesame sauce.

  9. Pig feet

The last two are the dishes I wasn’t thrilled with. Pig’s feet aren’t very interesting; I’d much rather have chicken or duck feet. The other one: I just don’t like thickened sauces. Otherwise it was OK.

Laura, Andrea, Jonathon

Laura, Andrea, Jonathon

Stone, Makayla, Eva ordering in the background

Stone, Makayla, Eva ordering in the background

Dumplings, salads, glazed potatoes

Dumplings, salads, glazed potatoes

Stuffed dates, lotus roots

Stuffed dates, lotus roots

Dumplings with pork and mushrooms

Dumplings with pork and mushrooms

Beef with vegetables, corn on left, back

Beef with vegetables, corn on left, back

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Friday, November 7

It’s hard to say goodbye. I have really enjoyed my month in China, and it has passed much too quickly. Saying goodby to my three students was especially difficult. I found out Siren is supposed to take a test to become an official English tour guide. I will be very pleased if I hear she makes it, but it won’t be because of my tutoring; she already had an excellent grasp of English. Makala told me I had done an good job with Amanda. That made me feel good.

Rachel, Siren, Amanda

Rachel, Siren, Amanda

It’s a beautiful day here, for my last day in Xian. The sky is blue and the temperature is in the 70’s. I went into the city and took a long walk. That’s what I enjoy doing most. I was going to walk on the city wall again, but never got there.

City Wall with Blue Sky

City Wall with Blue Sky

Instead I walked from the center of Xian City almost back to the apartment. The center is a very busy area with fancy shopping malls and all sorts of things going on. I wandered down one street and found a New York type street fair. This was junk for the locals, not tourist junk.

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Fancier setup than you would find in New York

Fancier setup than you would find in New York

After I left the city walls I passed a school that was just letting out. All the parents were lined up waiting for their kids, just like at home. It was nice to see that. Finally I felt like I couldn’t walk anymore and got a taxi back here. Between 3:30 and 5 it can be difficult to get taxis. That’s the time of shift change. I finally flagged one down and two men approached just as I did. I yelled at them in English and they backed off.

We had a great dinner, out at a restaurant. We were told it would be a dumpling dinner, and we did have dumplings, but we also had nine other dishes, of which I loved seven. I’ll describe it in my next post along with the pictures. The next post will be from Japan and the great firewall will be left behind. I have to get up at 5:30 tomorrow morning so I’m going to bed as soon as I post this and finish packing.

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I am actually writing this on Wednesday, about 1 pm. That’s Tuesday night for you at home. I am thrilled the election is over and there is no question Obama won. I was prepared for a week of agony. Everyone here at CCS is happy Obama won. They don’t understand why Obama is called a black man, or what difference it makes. Our director said none of the volunteers who have come here seemed like racists and when he went to New York he did not feel any prejudice. I had to explain that both New York and CCS volunteers are special.

I am winding down my activities here and getting ready to leave on Saturday. I bought a few presents to bring home, but probably will do most of my shopping in Japan so I don’t have to carry things with me for two months. I’ve been rewriting the script used by the tour guides at the museum. I have only a few remaining questions or corrections and will finish tomorrow.

I tried to give a tour today to demonstrate how I would do it. I don’t think I was particularly successful. I’ve given museum tours in the past, but never with so many people milling around and so much chaos around me. I was hoping to get through the entire museum in the hour and a half normally allotted, but we had so many side discussions we only got about two thirds of the way. Makayla came with me and being fluent in English, she was able to translate even my most sophisticated directions, many of which had not been clear previously.

Last night Jonathon and I finally got out for dinner; back to the Muslim Quarter for dumplings. We got the ones that have broth inside, as well as the meat filling. I love the taste of the broth as you bite down on the dumpling. Jonathon has been working on his Mandarin, so the waiter thought he would understand and gave us a long lecture about how to eat the dumplings. According to the waiter you put the dumpling into the white plastic spoon then use the chopstick to create a hole in the dumpling.You eat the broth that spills into the spoon then put the dumpling into the sauce they gave you, let it fill with sauce, then you eat it. I prefer leaving the dumpling whole, dipping it into the sauce and putting the whole thing in my mouth so I get both sauce and broth.

Practicing his Chinese on the taxi driver got us back to the apartment the long way. Since I picked up the fare on the way out, I let him get stuck with that bill. I really enjoyed the dinner and hope we’ll go out again tomorrow night; he has a real date tonight. The food here is great, but I also enjoy eating out. And how often do I get to go out with a younger man.

This afternoon Eva, Mr. Wang, Mr. Zhao, our cook, and I went to the herb and flower markets. Andrea was also supposed to go, but she’s been sick as has Laura. They both have some terrible upper respiratory thing. The markets were fun, especially the herb market, where they sell some things for cooking and many things for traditional medicine cures. As with many other markets here, each vendor had a small space within large sheds. Each seemed to have similar things for sale. Eva said there were so many people here it didn’t matter they were all the same. They would all do business. Most of their customers must come early in the morning. We seemed to be the only people this afternoon. One of the herbs they sell is saffron. Every vendor tried to sell me some. This is the hot tourist item.

Herbs for traditional Chinese medicine

Herbs for traditional Chinese medicine

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Tortoise shells, among other things

Tortoise shells, among other things

The flower market had mostly green plants for sale and looked a lot like some of the large green houses around Chicago. Next to the flower market was a market selling tropical fish and turtles. It was neat, but I liked the herb market best. It was far and away the most exotic, with tortoise shells, centipedes, pearls to grind up and put in your food, packages of assorted stuff you put into grain alcohol and sip a little when you need a cure.

Gambling on who catches the first fish in that funny pond

Gambling on who catches the first fish in that funny pond

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Monday, November 3

Monday is my day off so I did a lot of walking again. I can’t say I saw or did anything extraordinary. I began by going to the Shaanxi Province Art Museum, a new building nearby. It’s a museum of modern art with a wonderful new building. The current exhibit was calligraphy, with no English explanations. I think there were actually two exhibits: a master calligrapher and the work of his students. This is entirely guesswork on my part based on my experience with art museums. It is, after all, the same world all over.

From there I took a taxi to the south gate of the large goose pagoda. According to the guidebooks there was a Tang Dynasty Art Museum just east of the entrance. I think I found it and it was closed for renovations. I walked in the park surrounding the pagoda. The Xian authorities are trying to recreate the Tang Dynasty today. The park and the surrounding buildings all look like Tang architecture.

At noon, the huge fountain is turned on and there is a show with music. I got there just in time. It was actually easier to see than when we went in the evening. The fountain is spectacular, and there are several waterfall type fountains in the park, and I keep wondering about the water. China does not have enough water. How can they use it in this way.

I did more wandering, getting lost and finally getting back to the apartment. I was supposed to go out to dinner with Jonathon but he forgot to tell the cook we wouldn’t be there. So we ate in then went for a walk looking for steamed buns for him; he’s always hungry. The steamed bun place had sold out so we settled for the bakery.

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Sunday, November 2


I am tired of seeing these solid blocks of type with no pictures. In case you are wondering, I’ve taken over a thousand pictures, probably a hundred good ones, but I can’t post them. My latest fix for surmounting the great firewall doesn’t allow me to post pictures easily and never allows me to see any of them. I just see tiny gray boxes wherever I have put a picture. I really want pictures in this post. At the request of my group I’ve put some pictures on Facebook. You can see the pictures for this post at: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=130532&l=4ddf3&id=1547011948 Sorry, I can’t put in links, either. Next week I’ll go back and add pictures and links to the posts.

This is my last week in China and I will be sorry to have it end. I think this is my ideal living situation. Most of my personal needs are met for me: food, cleaning, changing my bed. My only responsibility is my laundry. At the same time I am busy; I do something useful, at least part of the time; and there is much to see and do. But, I don’t want to be here when it gets really cold. I’ve been spoiled by central heating. There is a heater in my room that I use in the morning and evening, but none in the bathroom. Coming out of the shower is not a pleasant experience.

Another beautiful day today, and i’ve spent most of the day walking. I took a taxi to a Taoist temple somewhere outside of the east wall of the city. On Wednesday and Sunday there is an antique market outside of the temple. I began with the market and was overwhelmed. It’s on a narrow, crowded street, mostly filled with men and no westerners that I could see.

I walked down the street, mostly ignored, but an occasional Hallo to get my attention. I wanted to take pictures, but I wasn’t comfortable and just walked out and over to the temple.

I know almost nothing about Taoism. What I thought I knew does not particularly jibe with what I saw at the temple. This is a statement I copied off the sign at the front. It won’t really tell you about Taoism, but I liked it.

Welcome to the Eight Immortals Temple of Xi’an. The temple, seated at Changlefang Street outside the Eastern Gate of Xi’an City was the first constructed in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) with a view to suppressing a mysterious thunder, which rose from deep underground. The site, partially that of the former Xingqing Palace of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) is where the famous Chang’an Wineshop stood. The stone tablet standing before the temple is inscribed with CHANG AN JIU SI in Chinese, meaning Chang An Wineshop, to refer to the temple where Han Zhongli (Master Taoist) met Lu Dongbin and helped him attain the Tao. As is recorded in The Biographies of the Immortals, Han Zhongli, the patriarch of Taoism awakened Lu Dongbin from his dreams at Chang An Wineshop and became his master later on. The temple was dedicated to the memory of Lu, the Immortal. Subsequently, a rumor arose that eight mysterious figures had been seen banqueting in the temple. They were believed to be the Eight Immortals incarnate, which led to the expansion of the temple to commemorate their appearance on the earth. The temple was named The Eight Immortals Temple.

When I first entered the temple grounds a priest was standing with a little dog. Another priest walked up and the dog got very excited, but ignored the next priest who came by.

Then I found a class in some kind of sword fighting, led by one of the priests. It was the kind of fighting they did in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or whatever it was called. There were a number of people lighting incense and obviously worshiping in a way that looked almost like Buddhism, but the Buddha was replaced by the Immortals, and I never saw fight practice in a Buddhist temple.

I probably should have taken another taxi when I left the temple, but I decided to walk. The problem was: I didn’t know where I was or where I should go. I headed off in what I thought was the right direction and kept walking. I was not in a good part of town. A couple of people passed and gave me questioning looks but no one said anything. It was a pretty interesting walk. I only took a couple of pictures; somehow it didn’t seem the thing to do. I would have liked to show you the man sitting on a sofa outside a decrepit house with sheets hanging on a line near him; the courtyard full of bags of garbage; is it waiting to be collected, or is it waiting to be picked over; two people going through several bags of garbage. Finally I spotted the city wall and felt more comfortable. I wasn’t too concerned. I always carry a card showing where I live to give to the taxi drivers. And taxis are cheap, about $2 to go almost anywhere I want.

Once I got inside the wall I still had to determine which street I was on. I had a map and a destination, and since there was sunshine I was fairly certain I was going in the right direction. Fortunately, Xian is built on a grid and all the streets line up with the four directions. I really enjoyed walking around, almost aimlessly, and just looking. I found a few interesting things. I was really looking for an English language bookstore that is supposed to be somewhere near the Bell Tower. I must have walked right past it. I’m not surprised I didn’t see it; there’s so much going on in the streets.

I passed this interesting shop called Herbal Heaven, and went to look at the herbs in the windows. The herbs turned out to be purses, very nice ones, and I’m still puzzling over the name. When I walked in the door the clerk got very excited and asked to take my picture. So then I took her picture. She said, “I’m sorry I don’t speak English” and I replied, “I’m sorry I don’t speak Chinese,” a flawless exchange, and we both laughed.

I got to the Bell Tower, which is in the center of the walled city, and had to sit down. I don’t know how far I walked. The map doesn’t have a scale on it. After a short rest I continued on to the Muslim Quarter; it was lunchtime. I took more pictures, found some small, rolled-up pancakes with meat and vegetables in them, then tried a deep fried bun with red bean paste in it, and bought some chestnuts to take back with me. Three weeks ago when I first walked through the quarter everyone was roasting chestnuts. Now it’s walnuts; only a few places have chestnuts.

After a short rest back at the apartment I went out walking again in the neighborhood. I’m still thinking about buying a jacket. I saw one today I might buy. It would certainly be warm enough, but it’s very sporty and expensive. Maybe I want something just a tiny bit dressier, at least not obvious sportswear. I have one more possibility if I can find the place.

We took Dana out for dinner this evening. She’s really amazing—took over in the restaurant like she was 25 instead of 13. I certainly hope she gets her wish to come to the states for high school. One of our group, who worked as a consultant in one of the largest accounting firms until he decided to come and live in China, coached her on the interview process: how to be prepared for the interview; how you should have at least three stories about yourself you can use to fit into your answers to the questions; how you should have questions of your own to ask when they give you the opportunity, preferably written out on a piece of paper or notebook you can pull out of your pocket, showing how organized and prepared you are for the interview; how you should be able to use every minute of the interview time, even making it run a few minutes over the alloted time. I wish he was around to coach my granddaughter, who will be doing similar interviewing this month. I wish I had had someone like him to coach me through the process years ago.

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Saturday, November 1

I really wanted to make a weekend trip to the Three Gorges Dam, but the arrangements sounded very complex and the whole thing looked like it would be exhausting. There are advantages to being on a tour. Instead I opted for a day trip to Famen Si, a Buddhist temple about 118 km. northwest of Xian and enrolled my three fellow volunteers in the project. We hired a taxi for the day and started off on a beautiful, sunny, warm day, into a part of Xian we had never seen before. I think I’ve said it before, I am hugely impressed with this city. We drove through sections with many new high-rise buildings, and many older buildings obviously about to be urban renewed. I keep wondering who had the foresight to build the huge, wide roads we travel on. Some seem as wide as a New York City block, with limited access lanes in the center, and two or three local lanes on either side. I think whoever planned them did it well before the automobile became so ubiquitous. And the amount of construction is incredible. We just have nothing to compare with what is happening here.

As we drove out into the countryside I realized we were seeing, for the first time, the Loess Plateau, the yellow colored earth that has influenced so much of China’s history and given the Yellow River it’s name. The river erodes the soil and has created some spectacular canyons and formations. One area looks like the grand canyon of Shaanxi Province. All the farmland is terraced and looks quite lush. The winter wheat they had begun to plant two weeks ago was coming up and much of the land was a beautiful green.

Our first stop was Qian Ling, the tomb of the Emperor Gaozong and the Empress Wu. This is one of 18 tombs spread over an area of 75 miles within the valley. Each of these Tang Dynasty tombs have their own broad avenue lined with guardian figures leading to it. Qian Ling was very impressive. The broad avenue dwindles down to a mountain path that you can climb for a great view of the area. I climbed part way then decided I couldn’t make it. My group went up without me, while I wandered back down photographing and fending off vendors. They behave like I have dollars signs on my head and “stupid” written on my back..

From there we went to Famen Si. This temple enshrined what is supposed to be a finger bone of the Buddha, sent to the temple by King Asoka of India to repent his warlike ways some time between 147 and 189 CE. For several hundred years the bone was thought to be lost. In 1981, a pagoda on the site, built in the Ming Dynasty was heavily damaged by rainstorms and broke in half. The photo of the broken pagoda was incredible. During restoration work in 1987, a stairway was discovered leading down into a crypt; the bone was recovered along with a fabulous treasure donated to the temple by one of the Tang Emperors. The first building on the temple grounds is built near the staircase and has a small window showing the crypt under the restored pagoda. Much of the treasure is housed in the nearby museum, with some of it on display at the History Museum where I work.

We were very hungry when we finished looking at all of this. Our taxi driver referred us to a restaurant and helped us order. As with tourist places in the US, the food was nothing to brag about.

We were supposed to go out for dinner with Dana, our eighth grade phenom, but we hadn’t been able to notify the cook who was busy preparing our dinner, so we changed our date to Sunday.

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Friday, October 31

They are very curious about Halloween, and I fielded lots of questions, but I think it’s not observed here. The day started out gray and cold again. My short walks to and from the museum were not very pleasant. I continued working in the galleries with my three lovely ladies. It didn’t seem as crowded today, which made things easier. We always have a half hour to an hour of what they call free talk; we just sit and chat. We hope it improves their English. Today we talked about families. I showed them pictures of my family and they told me about theirs. They thought Robin looked like me, Charna was beautiful, and Eli looked like his father.

After lunch Jonathan and I went to the Muslim Quarter and just walked around, as the weather improved. We looked at all the souvenir junk then walked down the food street in the opposite direction than we’ve gone before. I love looking at the food, but having eaten lunch nothing tempted me. I think the selection is better in the evening and weekend. But we saw extraordinary things, not usually displayed on the part of the street that caters to the tourists, such as huge, amazing kettles, ovens that looked so hot we didn’t want to get near them, and one shop with heads of sheep, lambs, and cows. I have pictures which will go up soon. We turned a corner and decided to go to the next street to walk back. As we walked we were engulfed in Muslim men with their white hats walking purposefully toward us. We turned the next corner and saw many more of them, finally finding them leaving a mosque. Obviously one of the prayer times had just concluded. We estimated we had seen at least a thousand men.

After dinner, my three companions, all quite young, went to a Halloween party. I had had enough day by that time and just stayed and uploaded pictures. They reported back that the Chinese people at the party came in costume, so once again we have spread a bit of our culture.

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Another day with Amanda, although Siren joined us after about an hour. When I first arrived at the museum there were a lot of cars parked on the pavement, mostly black expensive ones with darkened windows—party cadre cars. Amanda, who is usually waiting for me, rushed up and told me there was a big ceremony going on; they were opening a new gallery. She wanted to go but I felt it would be more profitable to work on her script. I agreed to go to the new gallery after we spent our time working. We sat in her office and read the script with me correcting every pronunciation mistake. I wasn’t being too picky, just the really bad ones that she wasn’t getting or the words where she dropped syllables. I wrote down each of the words she consistently mispronounced and tried to give her guidance. For instance, she would say “win” instead of “wine.” When I wrote “wyn” she got it. I think there were about 15 like that. I gave her the page for homework.

Finally Siren and a couple of the other girls came into the office dressed in what were supposed to be Tang Dynasty costumes, long, red embroidered chong sam type with little jackets. The girls looked beautiful. Almost all of the tour guides are beautiful. The dresses didn’t look anything like the Tang Dynasty pottery figures shown in the museum. Siren in regular clothing joined us and helped correct Amanda and, to some extent, the script. It seems that things keep changing in the museum.

After we put in our time we went to see the new exhibit. There is a temporary exhibit space that had recently shown something about the Olympics, although it ended before I began working there, and the gallery was closed. Now they were showing photographs and objects about the excavations that had taken place in Shaanxi Province in the last 30 years. The excavations have been extensive and the findings amazing. Unfortunately, the exhibit is entirely in Chinese; without my two guides I would have recognized some things but only been able to guess about most of it.

After lunch and the language lesson, I went shopping. I’m really concerned about not having enough warm clothes. I’d like to buy a winter jacket. My usual problem buying clothing is that my shoulders and top are about two sizes smaller than my middle. I’ve lost some weight, recently, but it never seems to come off the middle, so the problem remains. It was interesting shopping here. They don’t have plus sizes at all, and not too many standard large sizes. It’s understandable—there aren’t too many plus size women here. I’ll think about it for a while. I might just buy a men’s jacket.

As I walked to the store I noticed a child sitting on the pavement begging. I think it was a girl. She looked awful. I think she had been burned. She had no hair on her head and no fingers. The skin on her head, face and hands looked shiny and mottled. She moved awkwardly, like you see robots move in movies. At first I thought it was a robot. She had a sign in front of her I couldn’t read, attracted a huge crowd and collected an amazing amount of money.

Eva told me these children are taken from the country (stolen or bought, I’m not sure which), and they are deliberately set on fire and maimed. Then they are taken out to beg. It they don’t collect enough money, they are mutilated even more. Because they can’t prove the crippling was deliberate, the government is unable to stop it. One of our group remarked, “This is the government that can do everything.”

We are cautioned on our first day here that we are not to give to beggars; it only encourages more begging. Coming from the New York area it’s easy to be hard-hearted—you get a lot of practice. While I was eating my meat skewer in the Muslim quarter an old woman came up to me, begging and indicated she was hungry. There was some meat left in the bowl so I handed it to her and walked away. I don’t know if she ate it.

This was the night to pay respect to your dead family members by burning paper money and other paper objects in their honor. We decided to go out and see if we could find anyone doing it. Only the usual crowd of shoppers were on the street near the apartment so we walked over to the temple I visited last week and found a couple of vendors selling these paper objects, including paper clothes for a small child, many kinds of fake money and some other paper things I never understood, but now I know they burn them. About a half dozen people were outside the temple making fires, some of them quite large. It is interesting to me that this occurs at the same time as Halloween and the Day of the Dead.

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Tuesday, October 28

Today I worked alone with Amanda, and discovered her English was worse than I had thought. We spent a painful hour and a half walking around the museum with me correcting her pronunciation, asking her to repeat what she had just said because it probably wasn’t English, at least not as I know it, and figuring out how I can best teach her. I asked her if she thought I was a good teacher. Without hesitating she said yes, then said she was a terrible student, if she was the teacher and had a student like her she would be angry. I’m not happy with her, but not angry either. I really think she would do better if she had a better attitude. I don’t think she wants to be there.

This was another chilly day; the long underwear felt good. I hope I have enough warm clothing with me. I think I have to start wearing gloves. I was hoping it wouldn’t happen until November.
This evening we had a lecture/concert about traditional Chinese music. A lovely woman named Li Hong Wei, a recent graduate of Xian Conservatory, came and played the Guzheng, a 21 stringed zither. It was a lovely concert with folk music and a couple of contemporary works.

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It was kind of a slow day, but I also did my laundry and had another Chinese lesson. I suspect I might learn something if I stayed here long enough, but with only a week and a half left it’s not going to happen.

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