Tainan Trip on HSR

Kiss and RideYesterday morning we saw the Premier of Taiwan and potential 2008 candidate Su Tseng-chang (≤) at the gorgeous new Tsoying HSR train station. He was walking around with an entourage of reporters and cameramen handing out hong bao. Yingwen ran up and got an envelope and got to exchange greetings with him, and I was kicking myself for not having charged our camera battery the night before. Aaaargh! The hong bao had NT$10 in it – a coin glued to the paper. Cute.

Leading in to the station are signs that say Kiss and Ride for the passenger drop-off area. More cute. This train station looked nicer than the KHH airport, which isn’t bad, but just remarkable considering how much money went into this facility and also considering how many of the other regional stations look. There was a Starbucks inside the station, and I fueled up on a Cappuccino before we got moving. We rode the train up just one stop to the one near Tainan and took a taxi into the Anping Harbor District – again kicking myself for not having camera juice – and visited an old building that had been so overtaken by banyan trees that the roof had literally become banyan roots. We then visited the old Dutch fort of Zeelandia and watched as they blew off three rounds from one of the old cannons, and had what looked like a delicious lunch purchased from the local street vendors up on one of the ramparts under a tree. (I can only guess that it was good from the yummy sounds they made – my restricted diet requires me to pack my own food everywhere I go.)

We took the older train from downtown Tainan station back to the Tsoying station. It is so convenient that the older trains and the new HSR all can transfer at this same location. Next time we’ll take the ride up to Taipei, which supposedly takes less than 2 hours. I’ll remember to charge the camera battery…

Erhu, Zhonghu, Pipa, and Guzheng

There are three traditional chinese instruments that I find fascinating: Erhu, Pipa, and Guzheng.

ErhuThe Erhu (二胡) is a two stringed bowed instrument that is played like a viola da gamba, resting the instrument on a leg and bowing with a loosely-haired bow that is situated between the two strings and pulled in a similar style as a German bass bow or gamba bow.

(Incidentally, the chinese word for “to play a stringed instrument” is “l��,” (���) or “to pull.” For example, a literal translation inquiring about one’s violin-playing capabilities might be phrased as “n�� hu√� l�� xi��o t√≠ q√≠n ma?” (�Ω��������∞���������?) Or: “Can you pull the violin?”)

This afternoon as I was hanging out in my parents-in-law’s house, I noticed two erhu’s sitting in the corner, and Yingwen’s dad said he had been learning the instrument over the past year or so. I asked him to show me how it was done and he obliged, demonstrating the basics of bowing and fingering technique.

The two strings are tuned a fifth apart, and they are close enough so that both strings are fingered at the same time. But you don’t bow both strings at the same time. The bow hair runs between the two strings and you change the direction of force in or out to alternate which string you are hitting. To increase bow hair tension, you have to use your fingers to pull the hair out away from the stick, similar to many historic western string instruments.

Fingering is also slightly different than your traditional western string instrument, in that there is no fingerboard. You simply lay the finger at the point where you want to stop the string and out comes the note.

Other than all that, it feels very much like playing a very tiny bass with a German bow. Not too bad at all. I noodled around until I found a decent rendition of the melody from Dvo≈�√�k’s 9th Symphony, 2nd movement – pentatonic scale, common to both American spirituals, the blues, and traditional Chinese music.

The zh≈�ngh√∫ (�∏≠�ɰ) is a deeper-pitched version of the erhu. I would seriously like to pick one of these types of instruments up, and figured I’d go for zhonghu since I tend toward the lower-pitched spectrum of instruments.

The p√≠p√� (����∂) is a kind of Chinese plucked string instrument similar to a guitar or lute. This instrument is even more interesting to me than the pipa. I have one recording of solo pipa performance and it is quite an interesting style. From what I can tell, the right hand technique is pretty challenging with it’s sustained tremolos. I’m hoping we can swing by a music instrument shop sometime while we’re here so I can take a look and possibly try one out.

Guzheng PlayerFinally, the g��zh��ng (�����) is another Chinese plucked string instrument, but this one sits on a table and is rather long at about one meter long. It is like a harp or a zither, with moveable independent bridges underneath each string.

If I had free time (ha ha ha ha ha), I’d try learning each one of these instruments. This is the great thing about vacations when you’re an over-busy person: being able to try out something new and different.

Taoyuan Airport Impromptu Baroque Tai Chi Ballet

It is around 7 AM and daylight is just breaking out over the Taoyuan airport in Taiwan on Chinese New Year’s Eve after a long flight from SFO, and I’m sitting waiting for a connecting flight to Kaohsiung and I’ve been studying advanced SQL techniques. I turn on my iPod and put on some noise-canceling headphones to cut out some of the din in the room, with announcements coming in over the speaker and a rather loud dehumidifier placed behind my seat. I’m listening to Hilary Hahn play the Adagio from Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E, BWV 1042. As the movement opens, this old woman gets up from her chair and starts practicing some morning Tai Chi Chuan. And it’s like I’m the sole witness to this sublime personal ballet. Her movements are graceful and limber, far beyond what you would expect from a woman of her years, and the movements of her hands in the air surrounding her seem to be in perfect step with every note being played. It is an indescribable moment of pure elegance; sublime, spontaneous beauty that will disappear with the the pre-boarding announcements coming over the loudspeaker for my next flight. For a moment there, I witnessed art – but I was the only one who knew about it.

Annapurna’s in ABQ

Annapurna Ayurvedic Cuisine & Chai House in Albuquerque is an excellent little alternative restaurant for gluten-free options, and a wide variety of ’em – Indian, sandwiches, and pastries. And caffeine aplenty. GF pastries – how often do you walk into a cafe with that in the case? If I lived in ABQ, I’d go there almost every morning.

This little cafe is actually two restaurants in one – the Green Light Bistro, which used to be next door, is now a part of Annapurna. For a celiac, this is awesome, because both menus contain a very generous sampling of gluten-free dishes. Mix and match, take your pick. They have dosas, soups, pastries, teff cake (low gluten, not GF), hand cut french fries with homemade dips, and plenty more.

The menus for both Annapurna and Green Light Bistro are entirely vegetarian. The markings on the menu are V for “vegan”, and GF for “gluten-free”. How cool is that? I wound up with this place after googling for “vegetarian” and “gluten-free” because I was planning a lunch with two known vegetarians, and I gotta at least keep an eye out for myself as well. One match came up, and that’s enough for me.

This is a great little meeting spot. We were getting together to discuss the Next Big Thing(tm), and the atmosphere in there seemed comfortable in a way that was somehow conducive to my own intellectual thought and creative energy. (YMMV). I liked the fact that there was free wi-fi, and most tables I saw were MacBook-wielding students frantically working on papers while bobbing their heads to the piped in ragas on the stereo system. I even heard a familiar bit of Zakir Hussein/Hariprasad Chaurasia/John McLaughlin on the hit parade. The staff there was quite helpful in helping me pick out something delicious to eat. It’s nice to have a laid back and comfortable place to retreat to like this – I plan on being back for all my ABQ trips.