Sunday, October 26, 2014

Arizona: Sedona

While Christmas-ing in Phoenix, we took a day trip to beautiful Sedona, 120 miles north.  Sedona is famous for its colorfully striated canyons, mesas, and rock formations, all steeped in hues of red and orange.  At the right time of day, the landscape glows majestically through beautifully filtered sunlight.

Sedona owes its grandeur to the whims of time, geology, and, of course, chemistry.  The area of Sedona was once covered with sand dunes, which solidified over time into sandstone. Rivers flooded with iron-rich water deposited iron in the sandstone; upon exposure to air, iron oxidizes into crimson-red iron oxide.  All of this would remain deep below the surface, buried remnants of geological times past, if not for the effects of uplift and erosion.  Today, layers of sedimentary rock that represent over 300 million years of geological history can be seen in the Sedona area; to a geologist, they provide glimpses long-gone ecosystems and environments, bearing witness to the past.

This sinkhole is called the Devil's Kitchen in Soldier's Pass. The giant rock in the center is called the Grand Piano.

Arizona: Phoenix

Summertime in Shanghai is hot and humid.  Now*, in the midst of the rainy season (late this year, I've been told), the perpetual frizziness of my hair is a testament to the high humidity.  Temperatures have been in the high 70s to low 90s Fahrenheit recently* (23-33 C, slightly warmer than NY), but the real summer heat won't set in until the rains end.

With life relatively stationary (and visitor-filled!) at the moment, and work busy but not quite blog-worthy, I thought I'd reach back in the travel archive to a cool, dry period: Christmas 2013 in the Arizona desert. 

We tend to look beyond our borders -- whether town, state, or region -- for exotic, beautiful, and relaxing experiences.  I'm guilty of it now, where everyday life in Shanghai sounds exciting to some but rarely makes it on my blog.  Our recent US domestic trips, though, destinations of convenience rather than bucket lists, have reminded me to look within as well.  There is great beauty to be found inside our borders. 

We met up with my family for Christmas 2013 in Phoenix.  The Marriott Canyon Villas at Desert Ridge served as our home base for exploring the Valley of the Sun.  (Fun fact: Phoenix is now the sixth most populous city in the US.  Who knew?!  It's large and diffuse, with a relatively low population density.)  Thanks to jetlag, B. and I spent many a morning cuddling and watching Sherlock on Netflix, breakfasting quietly without waking my siblings, and then sneaking out for sunrise walks on the golf course and early morning checks to see if Delta had finally decided to deliver our bags.  (From LAX, Delta sent our bags to PDX -- Portland -- instead of PHX -- Phoenix.)

Before this trip, I'd spent little time in the desert.  I've seen lakes, rivers, waterfalls; mountains, rainforests, temperate forests; grassy rolling hills and flat plains.  The desert, for all its inhospitality, for its extreme temperature swings, lack of water, spiny plants and poisonous creatures, is startlingly beautiful. In this harsh environment, survival is key.  It's each plant and animal for itself.
“Water, water, water.... There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness  

Driving through Sonoran desert region, we saw stark ground studded with little cacti and towering saguaros, all coated with spines -- some big, resembling nightmare-ish needles, others tiny, seemingly fur-like, but prickly and painful nonetheless.  We pulled off the side of the road and walked quietly, meditatively into the desert.

Our adventures around Phoenix took us up Piestewa Peak, the second highest point in Phoenix mountains, and to the Hole in the Rock at Papago Park which, true to its name, is a large hole in a rock.

At Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch in Picacho, Arizona, we fed donkeys, deer, goats and kids, prairie dogs, ostriches, and birds.

And then, after marveling at Biosphere 1 (i.e. Earth), we took a trip to Biosphere 2, the research facility famous for its extended experiments on closed biospheres for space colonization.  During "Mission 1" and "Mission 2" in the early 1990s, researchers were sealed inside for extended periods of time to live in an entirely self-sufficient environment.  The glass vivarium is now owned by the University of Arizona, and is operated as an open system to explore the web of interactions between different biomes. 

Biosphere 2 photo from WikipediaDelta had my camera.

We also took a day trip to Sedona -- see the next post for photos.

* When I drafted this, in late June. Not when I'm posting, in late October.  Whoops.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

China: Hangzhou Bay Wetland Center, Cixi, Ningbo

Head south from Shanghai and you'll hit Hangzhou Bay; following the water inland along the Qiantang River leads, aptly, to the city of Hangzhou.  In the past, a trip from Shanghai to Ningbo (nearly due south, just across Hangzhou Bay) required driving southwest -- nearly to Hangzhou -- to cross a bridge, and then tacking back southeast toward the coast.  Then, in May 2008, the Hangzhou Bay Bridge (hángzhōu wān dàqiáo, 杭州湾大桥) opened to the public.  This bridge is 22 miles long (one of the longest trans-oceanic bridges in the world!), and cut the driving time from Shanghai to Ningbo by two to three hours, providing a much more direct route across the water.  Built in an area known for some of the highest tidal forces on the planet, extremely strong winds during typhoon season, and earthquakes, the bridge is a feat of Chinese engineering.  It spent 10 years under design and 4 years under construction.  The toll to cross is 80 RMB (not quite $13 USD).

Crossing the bridge lands you in Zhejiang province.  At this point, my geography (or, rather, my understanding of Chinese geographical classifications) gets a bit hazy.  You're in the city of Cixi (cíxī, 慈溪), which is located in the sub-provincial city of Ningbo (níngbō, 宁波).  It's about a one hour drive from there to Ningbo (proper?). 

Cixi has an incomprehensibly long history (at least from a short American perspective), leading back to the State of Yue in the Spring and Autumn period of the Zhou Dynasty (770BC - 476BC); Ningbo has an even longer history, dating to Hemudu culture in 4800 BC (no, I didn't accidentally add an extra zero).  We stopped in Cixi for several hours to check out the Hangzhou Bay Wetland Park.

Hangzhou Bay Wetland Park has a three-fold aim: environmental preservation, environmental education, and waste water management. Its creation was supported by the Global Environment Fund and World Bank.  The 330 hectare area features different wetland habitats, with walking paths, boat tours, and educational centers.  It is, impressively, largely man-made on reclaimed coastal land.  The wetland is a hotspot for migratory birds in the winter.  It's role in the purification of waste water -- not obvious except for the explanatory signs -- helps provide clean water to the residents of Cixi and Ningbo.  To quote the World Bank:

"The constructed wetlands at both wastewater plants in Cixi City enhanced the final effluent quality to Class IA standards, demonstrating the feasibility of using constructed wetlands for tertiary treatment at lower costs. Municipal leaders from around China have visited the site to learn from this experience and are adopting the approach in new projects."

The sign reads:
"Nenuphar Lake is one of the Ten Scenic Spots in the Wetland.  It lies in the Engineering Wetland, which is characterized by the purification of sewage through the wetland's flora ecological system.  The sewage purifier has the shape of the Chinese character for kidney, which implies "kidney in nature".  The chief plants for the purification work are nenuphar, cattail, thalia dealbata, and so on and so forth.  When the flowers of the plants are in full bloom, the lake is as smooth as a mirror.  Enchanting flowers in the mirror constitute a rare and glamorous splendor of characteristic plants in wetland."

Living in China, in the mega-cities that dominate the east coast, it's rare to have experiences to connect with nature in daily life.  Big, open spaces are quickly paved over, replacing flowers and trees with apartment complexes and industrial parks at an alarming rate.  We joke that the only big, open areas for people to gather are inside shopping malls -- a trend supported both by development* and by a desire to limit open areas where people could gather and protest.  It's heartening, then, to see the undertaking of such a huge project in the other direction, reclaiming the wetland environment before it disappears entirely.

Her first outing in China!

 * China covers roughly the same land mass as the US, and is home to more than four times as many people (roughly 1.4 billion vs 330 million).  They all need to live somewhere and work somewhere; the growth and development of the cities and manufacturing sector in China since 1981 has lifted more than 600 million people out of extreme poverty, bringing forth the largest growth of the middle class in history.  That middle class is now growing increasingly, vocally concerned about environmental issues.  It'll be interesting to watch the Chinese government try to balance the needs of the economy with the needs of the environment and the demands of the people.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

China: Yangmei Picking in Ningbo

Yangmei berries!  Are you excited?  You should be... at least if you live in Asia.  If you don't, you're missing out on some serious deliciousness.  (Come visit!

June in Shanghai means yangmei berry (yángméi, 杨梅) season.  The deep red globular fruit appears suddenly and floods the street corners and wet markets, only to disappear again a few short weeks later.  With yearly availability limited to about a month, it is a short-lived but highly-anticipated treat.

The yangmei berry, also known as the Chinese bayberry, waxberry, Chinese strawberry, and, more recently, "yumberry", grows on the Myrica rubra tree in the hot, humid climate of Zhejiang province (just south of Shanghai).  The berries are akin to ping pong balls in shape and size, with a bumpy, modular outside (like a raspberry) and a cherry pit at the core.  They range from crimson to dark purple in color; the darker berries are sweeter while the brighter ones are more tart and astringent.  While the fruit itself is unavailable in the US, due both to its extremely short shelf life and a ban on importation, its juice can occasionally be found.  Imagine a flavor profile combining all the best characteristics of strawberries, raspberries, cranberries, and pomegranate.  That's a yangmei berry.


Yangmei berries are packed with antioxidants, earning them a "superfood" label; all types of health benefits have been ascribed to them (anticancer, antiviral, cardiovascular health, etc, etc), though few have been scientifically validated.  In China, they're traditionally thought to help with stomach ailments. 

In the company of our close Chinese friends, we ventured three hours south of Shanghai to Ningbo, an epicenter of yangmei production, to pick our own.  According to a 2007 New York Times article, yangmei production in China has surpassed 865,000 acres; by comparison, the US has about 856,000 acres of citrus trees and 1,044,000 acres of grapes, the only American fruit crop with greater acreage. We came home from the weekend with crimson-stained clothes and fingers, and nearly 20 kilos of yangmei.

We eat as many fresh yangmei berries as we can, but they last only a few days before starting to spoil.  The rest are preserved either by freezing (for use as yangmei ice cubes in drinks, or for thawing at a later date) or in baijiu (Chinese hard alcohol).  Caveat: after a year of sitting, the alcohol becomes heavily concentrated in the berries, leaving the liquid deliciously flavored and lightly alcoholic and the berries as strong as shots! 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

China: Suzhou II

We welcomed June with a long weekend for Dragon Boat Festival (duānwǔ jié, 端午节).  While eating zongzi (trigonal pyramidal dumplings of glutinous rice with various fillings, wrapped in large leaves), watching dragon boat races, and listening to firecrackers, we found our way back to Suzhou, this time to the Humble Administrator's Garden (Zhōuzhèng yuán, 拙政园).  


Covering 12.5 acres, the Humble Administrator's Garden is Suzhou's biggest; it is considered one of the four most famous gardens in China. It finds its origins over 500 years ago in the Ming dynasty, with an official who retired from government service to garden, as befit a "humble" man. Water is central to the garden, which features a maze of pools and islands set around a large central lake.  In such a vast space, what we appreciated most were the little things -- the "forest" of over 700 potted, carefully cultivated bonzai trees; the flowers; the carved windows and framed entrance ways; the small details; the rare moments of quiet and solitude.  

Suzhou train station at night