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Sunday, January 19, 2014

Get we to a nunnery

The Year of the Horse is almost upon us as we prepare to spend our first Lunar New Year 春节 here in Shànghăi 上海. It's a festive time of the year that I've never looked forward to celebrating, because while it's of great importance for Chinese reuniting with their families, it's also likely to be (based on past Taiwan experience) a cacophonous din of exploding firecrackers, not to mention densely packed roads, trains and subways, sightseeing spots overrun with pushing, shoving hordes and price-gouging on the part of hotels and restaurants. The hotel part I can only assume because we have no choice this year but to stay within in the city as I will have the "pleasure" of being the duty officer during the Spring Festival - if you know of any American citizen friends, relatives or acquaintances living within the greater Shanghai metropolitan area, please be sure to remind them that this will be a great time of year to leave the city (the further away from Shanghai, the better!).

Here at our home, we're trying to get into the spirit of things. The Christmas tree has been taken down, and in its place stands a wintersweet, known in Chinese as a làméi 腊梅, which blooms at this time of year and therefore holds some sort of significance the meaning of which my spouse is utterly unable to get across to her barbarian husband (because she herself doesn't know the reason why). The lunar new year's eve falls on January 30 this year, and our holiday break will stretch from the 31st to February 4.

Speaking of holidays, tomorrow is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, which means I get the day off from work (though my daughter still has to go to school). Today, the three of us stepped out into the cold to do some sightseeing, an activity we haven't done as a family unit in quite some time (though Pamela has been busy the past few weeks entertaining visitors from Taiwan). We headed this afternoon to the Old City 老成 area, always busy on the weekends but especially so at this time of year, with the Lantern Festival 元宵节 as well as the new year fast approaching. Lunch was had in a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant located down a short, narrow alley and consisted of beef noodles, green vegetables and the above-pictured niángāo 年糕, aka "New Year cake". Made of steamed glutinous rice, it had a texture similar to that of mochi 餅.

Amber poses with a giant gourd outside the restaurant. We were in the vicinity of Yù Garden 豫园, one of Shanghai's most popular tourist attractions (especially the surrounding bazaar), but today our destination was somewhere a little different. 

A short walk to the west of the gardens lies the Chénxiānggé Nunnery 沉香阁. Temples are plentiful in Taiwan, but houses of worship are comparatively fewer and far between in Shanghai. 

Photography wasn't allowed inside the buildings, but we did visit the Hall of Heavenly Kings 天王殿, the Great Treasure Hall (pictured above) 大雄宝殿 and the Guānyīn Tower, which contained an androgynous image of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy (and where one of the resident nuns gave my daughter an apple). 

Among the items for sale on the street outside the nunnery, you could purchase a small figurine of Máo Zédōng 毛泽东, in which the Great Helmsman comes off looking more like the Great Gardener.

A shop stocked with items related to the Lunar New Year

An establishment selling kites and various other bric-à-brac

My wife insisted on us plunging into the chaos of the Yùyuán Bazaar, a maze of narrow lanes cluttered with souvenir shops and food stands (including such traditional Chinese fare as KFC and DQ). Pamela was in search of stinky tofu 臭豆腐, which she unfortunately found.

Spring festival decorations were in abundance. The bazaar will no doubt be even more of a zoo come the holiday period.

Leaving the Yu Gardens behind, we walked over to Dàjìng Lù 大镜路, one of those odoriferous, jumbled little streets that were no doubt ubiquitous in Shanghai not all that long ago. My wife hates walking down streets like this one, because it forces her to come face-to-face with a China she knows is still quite common, but which she would prefer to ignore, especially in a city like Shanghai, where China's new-found prosperity is so much in evidence.

Pamela did take an interest in the jars filled with traditional alcohol, but she chose to ignore all that laundry hanging overhead. 

Time is running out for streets like Dajing Lu. Looming in the distance is the Shanghai Tower 上海中心大厦, due to be finished sometime this year, when it will stand 632 meters (2073 feet) high. The residents don't need to look so far, however - at the opposite end of the street, construction is nearing completion on what appears to be another high-priced condo complex.

Past the condos stands Báiyúnguān Temple 白云观

Unlike the nunnery, this Taoist temple was very active, with worshipers burning incense and colorfully-clad Taoist priests holding a noisy ceremony in the main hall while we were there.

"I see ya, you camera-toting foreign devil"

Bowing before a large statue of the Jade Emperor in the main hall

Big ass joss sticks

Like most old Chinese cities, Shanghai was once surrounded by a wall, one that stretched for five kilometers (3.1 miles) in length. Torn down in 1912, the only surviving section of the wall (erected in 1553) is found in the Dàjìng Pavilion 大镜阁, which dates from 1815. It sits next door to the Baiyunguan Temple. 

This dog taking a nap on Dajing Lu probably had no idea that just around the corner and a few hundred meters down the road, this sight (though, hopefully, not fate) would await him...

There, hanging among the sausage, the fish and other meats was hanging what the Taiwanese used to refer to as xiāngròu 香肉 "fragrant meat", a euphemism for when dining on man's best friend. Bon appétit!

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