Category Archives: Travel

Parade / Bomb Day Honor Chinese

BokKai_3The town of Marysville, CA, north of Sacramento, hosts a parade each year honoring the Bok Kai Temple and the Chinese-American descendants of people who came to the town in the 1880s. Seminar-goers from the Temples and Museums Conference got to watch the parade down the main street, a spectacle that included their beloved and extremely long Chinese dragon (I counted at least 35 pairs of legs propping him up), martial arts clubs, high school bands, the de rigueur politicians in vintage cars, lads popping fire crackers along the street, and fire trucks old and new.

The day after the town celebrated “Bomb Day.” The event begins with a procession through town. Participants carry plaques with the names of various Buddhist deities. Thousands of firecrackers explode, turning the street a bright pink with their detritus. Eighteen handmade bombs stuffed with gunpowder are set off near the temple. A ring atop each cylinder bomb blasts into the air while young men below scurry to catch it and learn the lucky number it bears.

This was the 136th year of the Bok Kai Festival. Bok Kai is a protective god. The temple bears his name and is one of oldest Taoist temples in the country. The celebration happens in the second month of each Chinese New Year.


Northern California Rich in Chinese Temples


Friends of Marysville (California) Bok Kai Temple spearheaded a “Temples and Museums: Managing and Interpreting Historic Cultural Assets,” conference March 12 and 13. The Chinese American Museum of Chicago put on the event. I attended as a member of the Brannan Island-Isleton Historical Society board and learned that we in Isleton are lucky to have a tong building (Chinese gathering place and temple) that is under restoration. The Bing Kong Tong will have its many artifacts replaced and be ready for public viewing by about April of 2017.

But I learned that many towns’ and cities’ Chinese temples have gone under the wrecking ball, usually to make way for freeways and other roads. Their artifacts have been carried off as well.

Presenters shared their difficulties in preserving Chinese temples and their original contents. They were from Singapore, Victoria, Idaho, New Hampshire, Oregon, and other parts of the United States, along with a number of places in California.

Marysville organizers said their town has a long history of Chinese integration into the community and that they have been valued community members. Chinese descendants and non-Chinese members of town attested to that and urged participants to see the Bok Kai Temple in town. The temple was built in 1865, destroyed by fire the next year and rebuilt. Renovated in 1880, the temple saw 1,500 Chinese and other citizens at its grand opening. It is the oldest continually operating temple in Northern California.

Bok Kai was known as Ruler of the North. He vanquished the Demon King and is known for his ability to bring order out of chaos. He also is considered a water god, providing protection from both flood and drought.

We then adjourned to the Chinese temple in the town of Oroville where the restorer’s daughter gave us a tour of their extensive museum and still-active temple. The temple was built in 1863 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Conference organizers said that they want to keep the momentum of preservation going and will pass the baton to San Jose and Isleton to host the next two seminars.

Iditarod Volunteering Doggone Cool

I packed my four layers of clothing and new sub-zero rated snow boots—all from the San Francisco REI sale—and headed to Alaska. I have been to Alaska four times now, but this was the first in winter. I was told that to volunteer for the Iditarod I would need to bring a base layer, a second insulating layer, a third extra-insulating layer and a fourth wind- protection layer. Then there were indoor boots and buffs and hand warmers and toe warmers and a skinny layer of socks and heavy socks and hats and inner gloves and outer gloves and…Yep, it fit in my big yellow suitcase. Barely.

I met my friend Susan in Seattle. It had been her idea to volunteer for the “Last Great Race on Earth” as a 60th birthday venture. And she included me in the plan. I’ll be forever grateful.

Iditarod_5The first morning at the Lakefront Hotel, headquarters for the Iditarod, I awoke to yelping noises below my window. I looked down on top of what I was to learn was a musher’s truck, with double decker crates on the long bed to house the sled dogs. A woman in a pink cap was systematically lifting dogs from each crate opening and hooking him or her to rings on the base of the truck. Sixteen of them to be precise. They were glad to be out of their sleeping quarters, and awaited food—large slabs of chicken for each.

Down in the parking lot, we met Sandra, the pink cap woman, who was happy to introduce her dogs and let us pet them. She is from Norway and is the longtime significant other of Norwegian dog sled racer Tore Albregtsen. Right off the bat, we had someone to cheer for.

The girl dogs were kept on one side of the truck, the boys on the other. All equally loveable, but Sandra said the females were the smart ones and the males had the muscles. No comment. (One of their top females did not compete because she was in heat, which is a whole other complication at the race.)

Iditarod_11The couple was readying for the ceremonial opening of the Iditarod in two days and the real start the next. That night they attended a banquet and drew Bib #52, meaning they would be 52nd to begin the race,  out of 85 teams. Teams are released every two minutes. The mandatory rests along the almost 1,000-mile course are two eight-hour and one 24-hour. Mushers who begin the race early will have a longer layover at a checkpoint to compensate for their starting position. The timing is precise and strict at the 20 checkpoints along the route. Teams can rest and eat at checkpoints but mushers often elect to just pull off the course to sleep and see to their dogs’ comfort.

Susan and I worked in the phone room for our first volunteer job, answering questions from anyone in the world who needed information about the race, from the order of the mushers to past races and stats. Some callers were children who were getting ready to follow the race from their classrooms. Some were older people who didn’t have computers and couldn’t get on

The next day we were given arm bands from Iditarod security, and we opened and closed roadways in downtown Anchorage so people could cross in between mushers. All 85 teams paraded for Alaskans and visitors, and honored their sponsors by letting them ride their sleds. The dogs were so excited they were jumping straight up and down in their harnesses. And yelping. And howling. It’s a hullabaloo. But these pups, who love to run, only had 3 miles to complete that day. Because Anchorage had very little snow, the city brought snow from Fairbanks by train to dump on the streets.

The real deal was Sunday, March 6, about 80 miles north of Anchorage. The official start (referred to as the restart) was at 1 p.m. on frozen Willow Lake. Families brought backpacks with food and drink and leaned on the orange crowd-control fencing, while the more macho drove snowmobiles around the lake in dizzying patterns.

All 85 mushers and enthusiastic, if panting, dogs took off without a hitch. The pups were eager for the sun to go down because the day was unseasonably warm at 40 degrees and that is hot weather for a husky type pooch. The sun was getting low as they headed through the woods and across Long Lake bound for Nome, and we took down fences from our security post.

Back in the Anchorage phone room we kept track of the race for callers and recorded fans’ musher-gram messages that would be delivered to checkpoints. Our largest duty was ahead: Dog Drop.

Iditarod_7 In front of the hotel, vets and dog handlers attached dogs who had been dropped from the race to fence posts. The dogs are flown by floatplane from the checkpoint where the mushers drop them off. There are various reasons a musher sends a dog back to home base. Dogs develop sore shoulders or paws. Some overheat because the weather in the daytime is too warm these days. (Mushers prefer to run at night anyway). Dogs who sustain a serious injury are flown to Anchorage Airport where they are taken to a clinic immediately.

The vets we helped looked over each dog carefully, took their temperatures, diagnosed their problems, made sure there was no blood in their urine or stools and handed them over to us. We bedded them down in the straw they are accustomed to, and gave them food and water. We put blankets over them and got to love them up. Oh yeah, and pick up poop.

The air was filled with the cry: “Dogs Coming” and a floatplane would crunch to a stop on the icy lake. Inside the plane you could see perked ears, bobbing heads and wagging tails of the dogs coming in. Once they settled down, however, they seemed pretty despondent to be away from their fellows and musher. As though they had failed somehow. We got to sit with them and reassure them they had done well and were good dogs. That wasn’t hard. They are all good dogs!

If their handlers don’t arrive in trucks to pick them up by 8 p.m., the dogs are taken to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center, the women’s prison in town. Women at the facility who have been on best behavior and trained to handle the dogs take them under their wings until they are retrieved.

This year, veteran mushers whooshed into Nome in first and second places, both from the same family. Just as I was cozying up at home with The First Great Race, the book that I had bought at headquarters from author Dan Seavey, his grandson was streaking from Safety Checkpoint to Nome with seven dogs in his team. Dallas Seavey arrived 45 minutes before his father, Mitch. It took him 8 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes to get to Nome.

Grandfather Dan ran in the Iditarod its first year in 1973 and won third place. He completed four other races. Mitch Seavey has run teams in 13 of the last Iditarods except one, and placed first in 2004 and 2013. His son, Dallas, 27, has won the last three consecutive Iditarods and a fourth in 2012.

Aliy Zirkel came into Nome about six and a half hours behind the Seaveys, placing third. Aliy had been in first and second places and was giving the guys a run for their money but was attacked by a snowmachiner between Galena and Nulato checkpoints, about 560 miles from Anchorage. Since the mushers do not carry radios, she was unable to alert anyone that she had fended off an attacker until she got to Nulato and the same man came at veteran musher Jeff King who was next behind her. The snowmachine killed his lead dog, Nash. King had to pick up the dead dog and two more who were severely wounded and carry them in the sled with him to the checkpoint. King managed to come in ninth in the race, but both mushers were handicapped, both physically and emotionally.

Alaskans, so proud of their race, are crying foul. The drunk man has been apprehended and said he was in a blackout state but Alaska people, both Native and non-Native, feel sorrow that the race was tainted by this crime. It is certainly not in the spirit of the race, which honors the 1925 serum run—dubbed the Great Race of Mercy. When a diphtheria epidemic threatened remote Nome, 20 mushers and about 150 dogs blasted to Nome in five and a half days carrying antitoxin.

Here at home, it’s spring. But I am dreaming of next March. I have the bug. No, I am not moving to Alaska to become a musher, although 2016 Iditarod musher Jim Lanier is 75. But just to be around those joyful, energized dogs and their musher owners is revivifying. And it’s great to feel that you are contributing to a splendid event.

Next year I’m trying for a volunteer position with communications at a checkpoint. I’ve heard I’m signing up for sleep deprivation, frigid outhouses and no running water. But what the heck? Then on to Nome. Gotta see those doggies in.

Here is a gallery / slide show of some photos I took during our adventure: 

Until the next…mush on.





Guilin a Good Forward to Li River Trip

karst peaks along the Li River
karst peaks along the Li River

Guilin was the beginning of our Li River experience. Chinese travelers packed our plane from Shanghai to this small city of about 1 million in Southeast China. I had read that Chinese people were traveling as tourists in their own country in increasing number. This was nice to see. Everyone seemed in a good mood.

Fascinating scaffolding
Fascinating scaffolding

My companion was impressed with how quickly Chinese air travelers exited the plane. No futzing around. Deplaning was their mission and they got ‘er done. Jan, who has been traveling around lately on U.S. conveyances, marveled at the mass efficiency we witnessed on Air China.

As we both did the driving in crowded cities—and pretty much everywhere is a crowded city. Our car drivers, experts in their field, seemed to manipulate the traffic rather than fall prey to it. Every moment called for attention in the extreme and was spent in what amounted to a contest of wills: cutting in front of, or dodging, all manner of vehicles: from bicycle trailers piled high with produce and three-wheeled trucks carting construction materials, to umbrella’d scooters loaded with whole families. Add to the mix multitudes of necessarily wary pedestrians.

Guilin’s traffic was less tense most of the time, except coming back from a cave walk and tea farm tour when we hit rush hour. (At the tea farm, we were able to try the regional variety made from sweet osmanthus.) Our hotel was surely the finest. Pagoda style, it sat in the center of Seven Star Park. Guests could only approach by staff-driven eight-person carts, luggage and all. They carried you through lush vegetation and grass clearings where people did Tai Chi, children raced around post-picnic, and tired parents relaxed.

Pagoda of Royal Palace Hotel
Pagoda of Royal Palace Hotel

Our second-story room looked out on a central pagoda and a couple of koi ponds. I say koi ponds because the fish dominated, particularly next to the bridge leading to the breakfast room. Children were given little bags of dried food to feed the begging fish, probably to discourage the kids from dropping miscellaneous breakfast items into the pond and to keep the koi on their regular diet. I had a favorite yellow giant but it was impossible to single out any one in the gush of bodies.

A light rain fell both mornings we were there but obligingly lifted as we left the dock on our Li River boat ride. That was fortunate because I didn’t want to miss one peak of the karst mountain ranges along our four-hour ride. We are talking bucket list, here, so I planted myself on deck with binoculars and camera. My friend and Australian tablemates were more comfortable downstairs and the views were good as well, but I somehow wanted to be in the outdoors. It made the mountains more immediate and real. Because one’s first impression of the scenery is, “This is not real.”

A standout on the Li River
A standout on the Li River

You must have to get up earlier than we did or stay out later to see the famed Li River fishermen with their cormorant pets, whom they have taught to catch fish and “hand” them over. But that was a small matter compared to seeing the endless, crazy, pointy mountains lining both sides of the river. I suppose one of the things that makes them remarkable is that they rise from the flat plains. The mountains’ limestone shapes are what one tourist outfit calls “fantastical.” I think that’s about the best adjective I’ve heard. I think I only took a little over 100 photos.

Next: The Chinese tourist town of Yangshuo

Shanghai, a Colorless Entry to China

My view from the Majestic Hotel, Shanghai
My view from the Majestic Hotel, Shanghai

My last day in China, the guide who came to take me to the airport was not the same person who had seen me off to Mongolia 10 days before.  Mr. Wong was again my driver, a friendly non-English speaker who had the smug air of a Chinese gangster one might see in a movie and who gave other drivers hell in Beijing traffic.

This Chinese woman, who mysteriously called herself Cathy, asked if she might sit in back of the van with me instead of up front with Mr. Wong. She talked more intimately about her life than any person I had met in China. She had been a guide for 20 years. She was not married and didn’t particularly want to be. She got to travel within China a lot. She hoped to travel outside China as well. And, she came from a “small village” in the Western part of China near the Russian border.

This last piece of information arose after I told her I live in a small town in California. I asked how many people were in her village and she said, “Only two million.” We laughed when I told her Isleton only claims 847 people. “You mean 847,000,” she asked? No, subtract those zeros. She was shocked.

But her disclosure pretty much sums up my new understanding of China. There are people wherever you travel there. I marveled at how well they seemed to be putting up with one another, although there is plenty of honking in traffic.

Looking down Shanghai from the scary walk-on windows.
Looking down Shanghai from the scary walk-on windows.

When I had arrived in Shanghai two weeks before, I was dumbfounded by the extremely gray trip from the airport to our hotel. (I was with a friend for almost all the trip.) Miles and miles and kilometers of gray and brown high-rise apartment buildings going up—or finished and vacant—“for all the people who are moving to the cities,” our guide explained. People buy their apartments, like condos, but unlike in the U.S., the units are just empty shells. It is up to the new owner of each space to put in the toilet and other bathroom fixtures, cabinetry, etc. All expensive propositions.

The construction had a sameness to it and it reminded me of the grim tenement buildings I had seen in Chicago as a child, although these were not run down. Perhaps because they were so new, there was a lack of landscaping. No green of nature alleviated the neutral tone. The whole look was exacerbated by the visible air, a slightly lighter gray draped among the construction zone buildings like shrouds.

Living wall, Shanghai
Living wall, Shanghai

Once in Shanghai, the Huangpu River and the view of the downtown from the Bund revived my spirits. I think I am a victim of having read too many novels dwelling on the romantic vision of the French, English and American Concessions in bygone days. The Concessions are shrinking into token areas for visitors as building after building meets the wrecking ball.

But, let’s face it: Why would Chinese communists want to celebrate the days of foreign occupation and memorialize that time with preservation? For the descendants of former occupiers to come and relive what China wants to forget?

At the temple Yu Garden, Shanghai. Young people in China love t-shirts with messages in English.
At the temple Yu Garden, Shanghai. Young people in China love t-shirts with messages in English.

No, I understand why these once grand sections of the city are going away. It leaves Shanghai in somewhat of an identity crisis, however. Even the good-spin guide admitted that the food of Shanghai lacks definition. It has not decided what its specialty food is “yet,” he said.

The most enjoyable day in Shanghai, for my companion and me was when we visited the Shanghai Museum where the ancient definitely is treasured. Amazing displays from China’s long history —many civilizations and dynasties—include more than 120,00 pieces of ceramics, bronze, calligraphy, furniture, jade, coins, paintings and sculpture.

Thank you China for preserving these beauties of your past.

Next: Favorite places in China: Guilin and Yangshuo.

And: strange foods sampled and not sampled in China and Mongolia.