Grilled Spicy Fish with Pineapple; Grilled/Roast Pork with Chili; Sticky Rice Steamed in Pineapple; my own personal pot of rice noodles in tomato/vinegar/chili sauce. Heaven indeed.
But I get ahead of myself. Almost since I began my assignment here in India, I have been looking for opportunity to travel to China. It’s only 2 1/2 time zones away; my IBM division has a sizeable presence in IBM’s China Development Lab (CDL) in Beijing; and, my IBM Sametime product line has many customers in China – so a visit would be a great chance to connect with the team I have worked with remotely for so long, and also to learn about the China market.
Work-wise, I think the trip was a great success, both with customers and with the team. In this post, though, I want to share some experiences of the trip itself.
First order of business is I need to extend my deepest thanks to my friend and colleague, Yu Y Wang, aka Charlie (many Chinese people who work with Westerners adopt a Western name to simplify communication). Here’s a pic of Charlie and myself at Beijing’s Olympic Park, in front of the famous Water Cube and one of IBM’s buildings in Beijing:
Not only did Charlie create an excellent and detailed agenda for my trip, all the time I was there he extended the greatest, most famous hospitality of China.
He fed me.
Back in USA you may get a sense of how food is viewed by Chinese people, by going to better Chinese restaurants and seeing the round tables with the carousel, packed with numerous plates of food and many people deftly wielding chopsticks to pick off morsels as the food travels by. One of our team lunches during my stay was exactly that:
Here we had: Duck Braised with Fish (anchovy size fishes you ate head, bones and all – I probably ate more than my share), Soup, Green Vegetable with Chili and garlic, Noodles, more Braised Duck, and Chicken with Peanut. And a few more dishes were added as the lunch progressed. There were about 10 of us but still, it was a hearty meal.
Talking to my teammates I find that lunch like this is pretty common, maybe not every day, but many days. What a fantastic change from our typical American work lunch of hastily grabbed pre-prepared sandwich, eaten at your desk, while you attempt to catch up on email. This lunch connects you with your teammates, clears your mind for the afternoon’s work, and just tastes really great.
My first night in Beijing Charlie took me out for one of the culinary must-dos of a Beijing visit: Eating Beijing Roast duck. This we did at Jiuhuashan Roast Duck, one of the top duck restaurants in all of the city:
The duck here is fantastic: The skin has a flavorful crunch, but with just the perfect amount of oil so that is seems each mouthful melts as you taste it. And we had not only roast duck but duck intestine – sautéed with vegetables and chili, amazingly tender – duck gizzard – roasted and sliced paper-thin, chewy and full of duck flavor – duck tongue – small, chewy bits in agar jelly – and duck soup – very rich duck flavor and also with the right hint of ginger and scallion.
Charlie is from Sichuan Province and after a few tentative inquiries – “Do you really like spicy food?” – on Tuesday night he shared with me the signature dish of Sichan: hot-pot at one of the branches of Haidilao Hot Pot restaurant. Haidilao is an award-winning place, and deservedly so – the service, quality and ambiance was outstanding. We arrived a bit early so there was no wait for us, but when we left we saw the large waiting area was filled with 100s of people, playing cards and other games, and having free snacks while they waited for tables.
The whole point of hot-pot is, well, the pot:
We got a pot with 2 separate soups, a peppery, vinegary soup on the left and a rich, mushroom-flavored soup on the right. I saw other diners using a single type of soup.
While your soup is heating up, the servers bring the ingredients:
From left to right they are: Duck throat, Catfish, Pork intestine, Duck intestine, Pork Sausage. And these are only some of the ingredients; we also had beef, vegetables, shrimp dumplings, and tree-ear mushrooms.
You probably can guess how this works, but if you can’t: The soup comes to a boil, then you grab a fresh ingredients with chopsticks and plunge it into the hot soup. After 1 –2 mins, it’s cooked, and you can dip it into a bowl of other sauces, or just eat it hot from the pot. The various ladles can be used to rescue lost morsels – of which I created several, as my chopstick skills are not as great as Charlie’s.
Another great treat at Haidilao: hand-stretched noodles. I should have captured a pic, but here’s one from the web:
In this “noodle dance”, the noodle-guy will stretch one noodle using moves half rhythmic gymnastics, half wu-shu – the noodles fly around like lassos till, when finally stretched enough, they gather up the long strand and drop it in the soup.
My last night Charlie took me to the Middle 8th Restaurant (a name I still don’t understand) which specializes in Yunnan food; Yunnan is just to the south of Sichuan and Charlie explained the food was similar to that is his home province, though not quite as spicy.
The picture that introduces this post was taken at Middle 8th … I should have taken more, but even though I was at end of my trip and had tried more dishes than I can remember, I was still more eager to eat than to photograph. In addition to the grilled fish, roast pork, and pineapple rice, we had cold noodles, a kind of cold spicy grain dish (not sure if it wheat or some other grain) and “steam pot chicken”, the famous soup of Yunnan, which looks like this:
That was my trip: 5 days and 50 dishes, and each dish delicious. I hope to be back in the spring. Till then … thanks, Charlie, and thanks everyone at CDL – you can be sure I’ll bring my appetite with me when I return.
* In China there is a proverb, “To the ruler, the people are heaven; to the people, food is heaven.” There is a book of this very title, which I have, written by AP reporter Audra Ang about her experiences as an expat journalist in China.
Imagine a piece of jewelry, painstakingly crafted, subtle and refined in ornament, and composed of natural materials selected for the richness of their innate beauty. Imagine this made as a keepsake, a thing such as any of us would present to a wife, or a husband.
Now imagine this work of the jeweler’s art at monumental size, surrounded by gardens that project silence and peace, and placed on a riverbank where the openness of the floodplain and the slow, steady flow of sacred waters bear continuous testimony to this most singular gift.
Imagine this, and you will have some sense of the Taj Mahal.
I would say most people thinking of the Taj typically envisage images like these:
Taj Mahal is built entirely of white marble that was brought to the city of Agra from the town of Makrana, in Rajasthan. This marble has a milky, cloud-like quality to it such that from far-off, or even from a middle distance, the palace seems light and floating.
However one of the more striking things to me was the incredible detail work that can be seen in virtually every surface of the Taj, like these:
The floral adornment in the middle bottom is carved in relief on the face of the stone; the surfaces feel extremely smooth. The main embellishment is inlaid into the marble, using the ancient technique of pietra dura and a variety of different minerals, including: yellow marble, jasper (black marble), jade, turquoise, coral and lapis lazuli.
The other amazing part of the Taj Mahal is the plan of the entire site. The marble palace stands at the head of a long, rectangular garden:
Mughal architecture makes extensive use of 2- and 4-way symmetry. The Taj is 4-sided, is surrounded by 4 towers, inside has 4 chambers around the main tomb. To left and right of the palace are smaller palaces of red sandstone, one of which is today a functioning mosque:
The minarets, domes and smaller flanking domes all are mirror images. To our modern way of thinking this symmetry would be dull and boring. but here, with the great scale, the riverbank setting, and the detailed ornament – which constantly draws the eye – the effect is grand, dignified and serene.
Most visitors to Taj Mahal, it seemed to me, were there to take photos of each other, and to enjoy family or group vacations. Yet the peacefulness of this place can be very affecting, as this fellow Westerner seemed to find:
For our part, after seeing the palace close up we spent much time strolling the gardens. These were flanked by trees and were virtually deserted – everyone really wants to just take photos of brother and sister making funny faces in front of the Taj. For us, we spent our own meditation time looking on these scenes:
At last, it becomes time to leave and one must reflect on the story of Taj Mahal: How the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan had a treasured wife, born Arjumand Banu but that he named Mumtaz Mahal, or “Jewel of the Palace”. The histories tell us that she was the Emperor’s trusted partner and favorite of his three wives: Jehan and Mumtaz had between them 14 children, including Aurangzeb, who ultimately succeeded his father and became the last Mughal Emperor. Mumtaz was also Jehan’s most trusted advisor. Holder of his royal seal, she advised Jehan to sire no more children with his other wives; this of course strengthened her own position, but at the same time Mumtaz hoped to prevent the political unrest that would come from different bloodlines competing for primacy. Alas, this proved to be a vain hope.
After 19 years of marriage, Mumtaz died in giving birth to her 14th child, a daughter, Gauharara Begum, who lived for 75 years. After her death, Jehan began construction of the Taj Mahal. Yet as he himself aged, he fell prey to disease and in his weakness his four sons – all by Mumtaz – began to contest for supremacy. Aurangzeb, third of the four, emerged as the victor: The second brother Shuja died in obscurity in Bengal after defeat in battle; Aurangzeb assassinated his eldest brother Dara after defeating him in another battle; then finally the youngest brother Murad was executed on trumped-up charges of murder. Whatever harmony Jehan and Mumtaz might have found in their own family life, it clearly did not extend to the lives of their sons.
The popular narrative told by guides and guidebooks is that Shah Jehan never himself experienced the completed Taj – at our hotel one of the stewards told us Aurangzeb was mad his father had spent so much money, so he imprisoned him in Agra Fort before it was done. But Jehan was actually imprisoned in 1658, 5 years after the palace and gardens were completed – I’m sure the great Emperor walked the very stones we did and looked at this sublime palace from the very same vantages. Doubtless Aurangzeb was motivated more by fear of his father – he had after all just killed all of his father’s sons excepting himself – than he was by thrift.
Shah Jehan is regarded as the greatest Mughal Emperor. He not only built Taj Mahal, but numerous other palaces, forts and mosques, all equally resplendent as the tomb of Mumtaz. Was Taj Mahal truly love’s last gift as the romantic stories profess? Or was it just another projection of power, a statement to the world and the last excess of an Emperor who had already created for himself the Peacock Throne, composed of over 1,000 kg of gold and 230 kg of precious stones?
I don’t think we can know the answer to that. But, from Agra Fort, through the narrow slot of a stone archway, we were able to see the same view that Jehan would have had:
Today, all is sadly smogged over with pollution. Yet perhaps Jehan saw through a mist as well, wondering at the end of life what had been vanity, and what had been truly important.
The #2 question* my Western friends ask me when they hear I am working in India is “Have you seen the Taj Mahal?” As one of new 7 wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal is certainly the best known of India’s many historical places. And I daresay everyone knows the romantic story, how a Moghul emperor built Taj Mahal as a memorial for a beloved wife – in India the Taj is a top honeymoon destination. So, bowing to the inevitable, just after Diwali we three Salazars made our way to Agra, to see this renowned palace of love.
* The #1 question is, “Are there really cows everywhere?” Answer: Yes.
In later posts I’ll share both the details and my impressions of the Taj, but today let me give some info on how we went about our visit. We were not part of a tour, nor did we get any guide, and for us these things were excellent choices. We saw a great many groups on tours, trooping about soldier-fashion. The advantage of a tour is there are no surprises and you see what you are supposed to see. The downside is, you can’t set your own pace, you are locked in to whatever timetable the tour has set. Since we are used to getting about here in India, we had little need to join up with a tour.
Which brings me to guides. If you visit on your own guides will accost you, flashing laminated badges and cards that supposedly are government-issued certifications. They will enlist you in casual conversation, “Oh, what country are you from? Are you liking India?” and quickly cut to the chase that for only Rs. 300/400/500/whatever, they will put their encyclopedic knowledge at your disposal and personally show you the deepest secrets of the Taj. The reality will be they will add numerous other charges – for example to supposedly get ahead in queues – and then relentlessly steer you to souvenir shops run by their relatives. On top of it all their knowledge is not much more than this:
My advice: Do what we did, read wikiPedia and other references on the Taj before you get here, and you will know as much, if not more, than all the guides.
The actual site of the Taj Mahal is very large, a complex of buildings and gardens over 42 acres in size. The complex has three accessible gates: West, South and East; the North side of the Taj Mahal is on the banks of the River Yamuna. We arrived at the East gate. Our driver waited in the parking area while we made our way to the adjacent ticket and visitors center:
Inside here you buy your ticket. If you are a foreigner this will be Rs. 750 per person, somewhat over $10 US. With your ticket you will get a bottle of water and some booties for your shoes – make sure you keep these!
We reached at about 9 am. I very much recommend arriving this time or even earlier. The lines will only get longer and the day will only get hotter the later you arrive.
The actual complex is about a mile from here. Every 5-10 minutes some electric shuttle vehicles will come by to take you to the real entrance. Every such vehicle is equipped with these helpful warning signs:
None of us had brought “nife” nor “helmate”, so off we went. After 5 mins or so ride, the bus/cart will drop you off just outside the first set of gates:
Just inside is a security check, and here is where the strange “prohibited items” list comes into play. There are guards there who will pat you down and check all bags, parcels, etc. Bring with you as little as possible! You risk getting sent back to the ticket building where you will have to check your contraband in a locker. This nearly happened to a Canadian tourist who came in near to us. His offense: He had a large bandana that featured the Canadian flag.
In terms of the crowds and getting around inside the grounds, these scenes show what we encountered:
We didn’t find the crowds bad. The main thing to watch for is everyone jockeying to get un-impeded photo-op locations. We saw at least 10 cases of someone doing the wildly original pose where they hold their hand in grasping position up and to the side and the shooter frames the shot so it can later be captioned, “Look, I am holding the Taj Mahal!” But by and large everyone was friendly and happily disposed – the place does radiate a certain peaceful nature.
Well, all happily disposed excerpt for this guy:
I snapped this while we were resting on a bench; this critter had no fear of us and I assumed it was because of long exposure to people. 15 seconds after I took this pic Kim screamed out, “AAH! What that – ?” The cheeky bastard had jumped up on the bench behind us and bit her finger! Later we saw touts who for a few Rs. provide handsful of meal, which you then can use to attract these pests to come and eat out of your hand. We did not partake of this service and thereafter took great glee in scaling pebbles and twigs at other chipmunks we saw massing to attack.
One last bit of logistics: With your ticket you receive some “shoe muffs” or booties. To walk on the actual palace you need either to remove your shoes or to wear the booties. Like most foreigners, we don’t like walking barefoot so we put on the booties:
If you decide to go shoeless, be aware that a) You need to carry them with you since there is no safe place to leave them, and b) You will be walking on bare stone for 100s of meters which, depending on time of year here, can get scaldingly hot. Use the booties.
Once you are done seeing the Taj you should exit the same gate where you arrived; ideally the same carts/shuttles can take you back. There are other options, like this:
The pre-paid shuttle was taking a long time – we waited 15 mins or so – and so we decided to engage a pony trap much like this one:
Like so much here, you bargain for these services. Do not get into any vehicle until you fix a price! Whatever they say, you say 1/2 that. If he re-states the original price, walk away – they will follow. If you get to a price you can live with, get in and go. Our pony driver asked for Rs. 200, we settled on 150. The difference is less than $1 – but it would not be India if you didn’t bargain.
Also on the walk back from the gate and the drop-off point are some small restaurants and many souvenir shops. We had no need of souvenirs, which mostly are miniature Tajs. We did stop for lunch – where we were the only westerners in the place – and had parathas and a dish of paneer korma for a grand total of Rs. 225.
How long did everything take? We arrived at the ticket place around 9 am, and returned 12:45 or so. I don’t think you need much more time to see what you want to see at the Taj Mahal. If you are in a big party, and/or you feel like taking your time, you might spend another hour or so. We in fact had more than enough time to go from the Taj Mahal to see Agra Fort, and then to get back to hotel in plenty of time for shower and dinner.
Those are the details of how we did our visit. It may seem odd, but for us we get significant satisfaction when, well, things just go as planned. Taking a trip like this there’s 100s of things that can go wrong, from missing your driver, to getting swindled or pickpocketed to getting denied entry and more. Even though we’ve been living here more than a year we still read all the travel sites we could find, especially India Mike – forewarned is forearmed.
The planning is worth it. After all your travels you finally reach the inner gate to the gardens, which is darkness all around, but through the archway you glimpse the palace, so white and ethereal it seems like a cloud:
Next time, I’ll do my poor best to show the many beauties of this wondrous place.
The holiday time of Diwali, the festival of lights, has come to India. The pix above came from Saturday evening, strolling about Koregaon Park after our dinner, and what they portray is typical – every home and business must show its lights. The “supermarket” shown in the right-most pic was doing a brisk trade; paper lanterns and fairy lights sell in vast quantities this time of year. We have such a lantern hung in our living room:
It is hard to describe Diwali. It’s natural to link such observances to something from your own experience. For example, there’s many gifts exchanged, so some people might say, “Oh, it’s like Christmas.” Others might hear Diwali commemorates different cases of good triumphing over evil – light triumphing over darkness and all that – so you might say it is like a more solemn Christian observance of Easter, or a Jewish one of Hanukah. Finally there’s lots of food and family visiting, so you might say it’s like Thanksgiving. None of these, nor any other trite parallel, is true to the feeling you get here – Diwali is its own thing.
In addition to our lantern, we are following our Indian friends and neighbors in yet another holiday practice: vacation! Since our visit to Aurangabad last February we haven’t really taken any time off, so we certainly are due. Since most schools are out all week for the holiday, this is when people go to visit distant family, take relaxation, or go sight-seeing. Count us in the latter category: Our destinations, Agra and the Taj Mahal, then India’s capital city, New Delhi. Tomorrow at 6 am our flight departs. I will try for some posts this week while we are seeing all these sights, though I can’t promise anything.
It’s evening here, and the festival fireworks are starting, color bursts in the sky far and near, interspersed with reports of varying loudness – from pop-gun to howitzer. Till I post here again:
Diwali ki Shubhkamnayein!