On the Way to Tagong – Western Sichuan


Mean streets of Tagong.
Mean streets of Tagong.

The morning broke in Kangding slightly cloudy, as myself and the British couple I was to trek with anticipated catching a ride in the morning to Tagong. This was a fairly relative measure, as are most things in Sichuan. Angela, the American-born owner of the Khampa Cafe in Tagong and the organizer of our impending trek on the plateau, arrived for breakfast and told us that while she wasn’t going to Tagong after all, she had found a driver for us, and he was attempting to locate more people to help defray the cost.

Happy enough about getting a slightly later start, we hung around the Zhilam Hostel, drinking surprisingly good French-press coffee and watching backpackers stream in and out of the landing.

We would be staying at Isabel’s guesthouse in Tagong, by the riverside a bit outside of town. This was because some sort of stomach bug was preying on the foreigners that went there, afflicting them with impressive attacks of barfing (and more!) just as they were growing accustomed to the high altitude. “We don’t really know how it’s getting around,” said Angela,”but I think it’s the water. It’s best not to eat anything in Tagong,or drink anything. Maybe don’t touch anything.”

Overwhelmed with vivid visions of being struck with some sort of exploding Mao Zedong’s Revenge-type ailment four miles into a horse trek, we agreed to stay out of town.

Angela then informed me about the peculiarities of the huge Larong Gar Buddhist monastery a day’s drive from Tagong, which few Westerners seem to know about, but numerous Chinese help financially support – many of whom have converted to Tibetan Buddhism in recent years.

“They’ve got this sort of Disneyfied Sky Burial,” she said of the place, referring to the practice in which Tibetan Buddhists ritualistically feed their dead to vultures and other scavengers.

“They’ve got this big cement skull, and then inside of it, there’s real skulls. Some of the monks lets the tourists come inside and see.”

I resolved to have a look, one way or another.

Tagong in progress.
Tagong in progress.

By 11, the driver was duly rustled up, and we bumped down the hill from Zhilam Hostel to the Kangding Hotel with our luggage  to meet him. He had a brown van and a large tan Tibetan cowboy hat, and he was now very eager to leave. Tony and I decided we needed to buy emergency provisions, as well as make a final ATM run, and we decamped towards the surprisingly large supermarket, leaving Allie to guard our bags.

The driver was exceedingly irritated at us for taking 20 minutses to locate snacks and a reasonably hygienic place to pee, and was more so when Allie realized she needed to do the same – altitude, we deduced, being a true diuretic when combined with buckets of coffee. But soon enough, we were off.

The road to Tagong climbed up out of the well-like valley in which Kangding sits, quickly breaking through the lush high-altitude forest and into a grassy and green plateau. We saw numerous miserable looking cyclists as we drove, some pedaling resolutely upwards with their freakishly bulging calves, others morosely pushing their bikes uphill through the cloud banks.

“If we get lost up here and desperate, we can always eat one of them,” I pointed out cheerily. The fact that the couple didn’t react to this with disgust (hey, I think cannibalism is hilarious) is one reason I like traveling with British people.

Soon, we went over the pass and the land truly opened to the Tibetan Plateau, with rolling hills denuded of trees, dotted with white boulders and numerous rainbow-colored prayer flags. It was at this plateau that the Chinese government had, for entirely mysterious reasons, decided to build the Kangding Airport.

It had an exceedingly optimistically huge main terminal, and an immensely long runway, accounting for its tremendous altitude and the amount of lift a large airplane requires at altitudes where the air is thin. “There aren’t any planes out there, are there?” asked Tony, as we looked at the lonely expanse. “I think there’s only one flight a day.”

“I wish them all the best with their tourism endeavors,” I said, as we drove past – finding ourselves encountering our first bank of nomad camps. The camps involved plain-looking white tents, surrounded by small and scrawny horses and plentiful herds of shaggy, small yaks, in shades of black and white and grey. The nomads wore black clothing accented with bits of color, including vibrant pinks and yellows.

Tibetan house in Tagong.
Tibetan house in Tagong.

Some of the nomads sat in small conclaves outside the tents and drank tea and smoked pipes, their huge and savage dogs wandering the perimeter with their noses to the ground and their flag-like, waving tails in the air. We were all very concerned about dogs, and seeing them so often did little to alleviate the tension.

A grim conversation about how to best subdue an angry dog ensued. (I mentioned a small bit of lore I had heard from protection dog trainers- to wit, if a dog is biting someone and you need it to let go, you can try sticking your finger up its butthole. I have not tested this personally, but I’ve heard good things).

Beyond the eternally grim dog topic, we enjoyed the scenery – green fields dotted with handsome Tibetan villages, the large houses made with grey brick and magenta accents. It reminded me of a rather Medieval scene, and it is also probable that the construction style has not changed much from that contemporary time period.

Everywhere were rainboe colored prayer flags and prayer banners, some arranged into attractive patterns. Stones were painted with Tibetan sacred characters, and torn-apart banners emanated from the tops of particularly attractive stones. White stupas – the same as one finds everywhere in the Buddhist world – occasionally poked their heads out from gulleys or behind sharp turns in the road.

Tibetans in Tagong.
Tibetans in Tagong.

Tagong was a truly Wild Western town, as if we had stepped into some left-over Blazing Saddles set-piece that had been taken over by a Kung fu movie – the extras occupying the exact same liminal space in their choice of outfits. Men with yak-skin ponchos and brightly colored clothing rumbled into town on large, mud-spattered motorbikes, while women in traditional Tibetan clothing wandered up and down the dusty streets, doing their shopping. People shouted “Tashi delay” in greeting at us, and smiled widely.

Numerous souvenir stores all seemed to be selling the same Tibetan jewelry and bric-a-brac, while many more general stores sold everything from faded basketball posters to fluffy pink towels to work boots. Trucks pulled up beside the road deposited lush-looking peaches and apples, while groups of Tibetans gathered around to trade jewelry, shouting happily at one another. Construction was underway to widen the sidewalks (or some sort of improvement along those lines), and a bulldozer made its way down the not-exactly busy streets, the driver peering at me with mild curiosity as I passed by.

Yak burgers: surprisingly tasty.
Yak burgers: surprisingly tasty.

We had lunch at the Khampa Cafe, where I ordered a yak burger – this time, the American style yak burger, on a house-made bun with real cheddar cheese. It was surprisingly delicious, with a homemade taste that reminded me, oddly enough, of the burgers my dad makes when occasionally moved to do so. This was served with potatoes baked in – you guessed it – yak butter, as well as a tomato and cucumber salad that made me have nostalgic thoughts about countries that have good relationships with fresh vegetables. I was happy.

Candles at the Tagong Monastery.
Candles at the Tagong Monastery.

We walked into Tagong’s main monastery, which had a large courtyard used for traditional performances on holidays. It was not exactly a holiday, and the staging area reminded me something of a motel, with yellow, numbered doors denoting where the monks lived. We walked inside to the smoky main vestibule and watched as two monks quietly lit small butter lamps and recited sutras. A skinny white horse grazed outside.

Tony and a prayer wheel.
Tony and a prayer wheel.

We had planned to secure a ride to Isabel’s guesthouse – also known as the Pasu Riverview Guesthouse – but it was proving harder than we had assumed. Late in the afternoon, and all the drivers had better things to do with their time, or had already retired to the hills, or something. After a solid two hours or so of sitting in the Khampa Cafe and drinking tea with ever-increasing nervousness about how exactly this stomach bug was transmitted anyway, we secured a ride.

Isabel was not there, having gone to Danba to get more appealing Western food for the Swiss group that was coming in, but Tashi, her husband, was present. He was not quite aware that we were coming, or so it appeared, but he punted masterfully.

Views from Pasu River View Guesthouse.
Views from Pasu River View Guesthouse.

The couple had build a huge stone house in the traditional Tibetan style, with Tashi’s brother and his family occupying the ground floor, and the guesthouse occupying the upper two floors. We were shown to clean and simple wooden rooms with white beds built into the floor, with windows looking out over the river, which had white and brown horses grazing beside it.

Tashi seemed eager to talk. He had, he said, worked at a Burger King in Basel and then an old folks home, while at the same time attending six months of German language lessons. “I like it better here,” he admitted, in his deep-accented but entirely understandable English. “In Switzerland, they are much too busy.”

Party room at Pasu Riverview Guesthouse.
Party room at Pasu Riverview Guesthouse.

He had studied Buddhist philosophy in Dehradun in India, he told us, but he had been born here, in the river town outside of Tagong. Isabel had met him while she was on vacation from a teaching post at Chengdu University.The two had lived in Switzerland until this year, when they moved here for a while to allow their five-year-old daughter to improve her Tibetan skills. The house was strewn with her small drawings and Western DVD covers, as well as books on Tibetan and German language.

Tashi proudly showed us their gorgeously painted karaoke and party room on the second floor. “Scottish students came here last week, and they sang and danced,” he said, noting a karaoke and sound system set-up, as well as burners for fires in the winter. It was highly impressive – and even more impressive, there were incredibly hot showers. We slept soundly.

If you need a place to stay in Tagong, do consider the Pasu Riverview Guesthouse/Isabel and Tashi’s. Contact information is here:

Tashi Tsering


Some Thoughts on Shanghai and What to Do There

shanghai through the window (1 of 1)

I haven’t been to China since 2007. Eighteen at the time, I spent a summer in Beijing ostensibly studying English, but devoting considerably more time to wandering around in hutongs, drinking baijiu, and feeling incrementally more alienated. (As well as coughing up black chunks of indeterminate material on a regular basis, due to the air). My impression of China was ultimately Interesting But Difficult, and I was happy to return in 2014 to see if any of that initial, smoggy impression had changed. Go to Shanghai to blog about a microfinance conference? No problem.

What do I think about Shanghai, and what advice do I have for someone who’s making the trip? What are some general, almost entirely unrelated observations? Here you go. Also, some pictures.

Pleasantly cosmopolitan. Shanghai is most certainly the New York to Beijing’s DC, to make a rather trite comparison between the two cities. Bustling, international, and aggressively new, it’s a city of bizarrely variable architecture, immense crowds, and billboards that flash and blink well into the stratosphere. It’s also surprisingly clean, with very little of the public spitting and dead-rat ambiance I’d grown accustomed to in Beijing. Those who have no palate will probably be pleased to know that every cuisine known to man exists here, including a number). of Southern BBQ places. (I am sad I did not get pictures).

It is also a city of shameless, impressive commerce, best exemplified by the time I walked by the Nike store on a Friday in the rain and saw an immense line to get in.

Shanghai downtown night view.
Shanghai downtown night view.

Cars and Crap Motorcycles – Tiny little electric motorcycles with bits of them taped on the are the norm in Shanghai. If you don’t have a crappy little electric motorcycle, you are probably driving a Jaguar. There seems to be rather little middle ground. I eventually figured out that gas-powered motorbikes are often regulated out of Chinese cities for reasons of both noise control and pollution, fostering a booming market for the little buzzing jobs you see here. Save the Earth.

On that note, I’ve noticed drivers here do give you slightly more quarter than they might in, say, Phnom Penh. But don’t get sassy in your pedestrian activities, pleasingly cosmopolitan as Shanghai may initially appear to be.  Cars seem to turn left or right into the turn lane at random. I would not recommend walking and texting here,unless you’re fine with being a meaty splat on the pavement.

Jazz singer in the French Concession.
Jazz singer in the French Concession.

The French Concession – Land of the Expat on a Fixed Gear Bicycle in a Business Suit, but also leafy and pleasant with lots of old buildings and a distinctly European flavor. As the name should abundantly indicate, it was the French portion of old Shanghai, and was established in 1849 when the French Consul to Shanghai was given permission to found it from the Circuit Intendant of Shanghai at the time. It was held by the French until 1946, and during that time period, became one of Shanghai’s most renowned and exclusive residential areas.

It still is – and the foreigners like it. I can see why, speaking as a foreigner: , it’s a very nice area to walk around in, with lots of boutiques, interesting bars, and restaurants of all manner of cuisines. I drove by some guys selling US and European craft beer off the street so you can be assured that you’ve found one of Shanghai’s hipster lairs.

I enjoyed the pleasingly retro JZ Club, which features nightly live jazz and a surprisingly robust line-up of international acts. The Cotton Club, right down the street, is also known for jazz music.

I also enjoyed visiting Madame Sun Yat-Sen’s house, which was highly colonial and proper, had a nice green lawn, and was filled with mild propaganda addressing both Communist and feminist themes.

Not Enough Street Food – I was told there’d be more street food. I was lied to. Admittedly, I was pretty much stuck in the rather sterile area around the Shanghai Marriot, but the pickings were rather slim even in the relatively food-heavy area of Fangbang Lu. Be informed. And perhaps research some good restaurants to try out instead.

This is probably especially pressing if you’re one of those idiots who don’t speak any Chinese, which would be me. I hope you fare better in the street food department.

Steel toys for sale in Tianzifang.
Steel toys for sale in Tianzifang.

The Bund Is Pretty But You Should Be Rich – The Bund is lovely. It is probably even more lovely if you are on a fat expense account or fabulously wealthy. If you are not, you would be rather foolish to stay in one of the budget hotels or hostels in the immediate area, considering there’s just about nowhere to go for a reasonably priced alcoholic beverage. Go to the French Concession and take the Metro to go look at the Bund, which is indeed majestic and well-worth it. Even go poke your head inside the Fairmont Peace Hotel and try to imagine what it would be like to be that guy with the white Ferrari parked outside with fuzzy dice.

Shanghai drink sellers.
Shanghai drink sellers.

Taxis are Cheap – My time to poke around the city was rather limited as I had a conference to go to, so I took the coward’s route and took taxis most places. I was pleasantly surprised at how inexpensive the taxis were, and how pleasant the cabbies were about using the meter. 13 RMB was the standard flagfall, and I never had a ride go beyond 26 RMB for a fairly considerable haul from the French Concession back to my hotel in traffic.

For Fuck’s Sake! No Tea Ceremonies! – It’s a scam. I have heard this story so many times that it fills me with no small measure of amusement that people still get away with it. I should also add that a single look around modern Shanghai and what The Kids seem to do with their time here should disabuse one of the notion that they’re all really into tea ceremonies. No. They are into annoying music and bootie shorts, like everyone.

I did have two girls ask me to take their picture in front of a very boring stretch of wall – with the Bund right there! – and they tried to start a conversation, but I faked not speaking any English and strode away quickly, leaving them debating with one another on a street corner. Did I miss a chance at a Very Special Tea Ceremony? How sad.


Taiwan: Paoan Temple and Confucius Temple

dragon fountain

I have never come across a temple with as many conflicting, alternative spellings as Taipei’s Paoan Temple. Attempting to Google this beautiful structure is a remarkable tour through wildly different philosophies about spelling out Chinese words in English. It’s also called Bao’an, or Baoan, or….you get the idea.

Regardless, you should Google it, because the Paoan Temple is gorgeous, and well worth a special visit and perfectly easy to get to on the MRT.  Taipei’s Confucius Temple is, even more conveniently, right next door.

bao an temple

Like most temples, the Paoan is best enjoyed around sunset, especially if you’re hoping to take photographs. It’s an easy walk from the Yuanshan MRT stop, and as always in Taipei, there are nice English signs for people who are too stupid to read Chinese.

The grounds around the temple are lovely and feature the usual spitting dragon fountain, as well as cement statues of tigers, lions, and other animals, as well as the requisite deities.

taiwan evening

The adjoining neighborhood is nice as well, with small shops (many of them devoted to auto repair) and a busy night food market a few blocks away.

dragon roof background

I am exceedingly fond of Taiwanese temple roof decorations, and I feel strongly that they should be featured in more tract housing. Everywhere.

battling fish people

I would be very grateful if someone could explain this image to me. It looks to me like a traditionally-built warrior woman doing doughty battle with a concerned-looking fish person. Or do I even want to know? Just that summary is good enough for me already.

chinese lantern

The Paoan Temple has been lavishly renovated once and again over the years, and is now a gloriously well-maintained confection of wood, paintings, and paper lanterns. The effect is something out of a half-remembered fantasy of a Chinese temple you might have somewhere in the back of your brain, highly influenced by kung fu movies with very large budgets. It is well-worth seeing.

confucius temple

The Confucius Temple is also worth a quick stroll, through austere grounds befitting the greatest of Chinese scholars. There’s a small museum attached, though it was closed when we visited.


Taiwan: Lin Family Mansion and Garden + Beef Noodles

city garden

Taipei’s Lin Family Mansion and Garden is an off-the-beaten track type of tourist destination, ideal for getting away from tour groups and the profound heat of summer in tropical Asia.  This lush and quiet park was constructed as the personal dwelling of the Lin Ben Yuan family, one of Taipei’s most wealthy and prominent families. Militiamen were stationed here until the Japanese occupation began in 1895, as mainland Chinese immigrants from Zhangzhou and Quanzhou battled it out.

big house

Lent by the Lin Family to shelter mainland soldiers in 1949, part of the garden was donated in 1977 to the city of Taipei. It was restored from neglect and occupation by squatters in 1986, and (per the inscription outside) has been periodically spruced up ever since. The main mansion and museum here is currently under this exact sort of restoration, and will be open again…eventually.

forest path

Regardless of the museum, this is an elegant, low-key example of a high born Chinese families residence and grounds, with specialized flower-viewing pavilions, elegant terraced ponds with covered walkways and lotuses, and carefully marked plantings of local trees. Entry is free, and in the summertime, the park is largely occupied by locals taking a stroll and students gathering together to do their homework or sketch the buildings for art classes.

lotus blossoms

While at the garden, I briefly talked to an older man in a white sun visor, who worked for the Taiwanese FCC equivalent. We were both trying to identify a bird, which eventually landed on a branch near us — resembling a fat and unusually saucy magpie.

Neither of us were able to appropriately identify the bird, but we chatted for a bit beneath the shade of an enormous banyan, looking over the little red and blue bridges that cross the landscaped ponds. He told me: “I’ve gone to the US maybe 12 times. It’s a beautiful country. It’s very hot here.”

Bed of green water plants in a pot.
Bed of green water plants in a pot.

I reassured him that Washington DC, which he visited regularly during the cooler months, was just as loathsome in the summertime. I could tell if he was unsure whether to believe me. I was reminded again that the Taipei Taiwanese are exceedingly friendly for a bunch of harried urbanites — striking up conversations on the MRT, lending directions, combing their cellphones intensely for the titles of restaurants if you express mild concern over directions.

Making beef noodles.
Making beef noodles.

Lunch time beckoned, and I decided to try out Lin Dong Fang Beef Noodles, which gets a slavering amount of online attention for their particular rendering of the Taiwanese speciality. I got back on the blue line and headed for the Zhōngxiào Fùxīng Station, then made my way to No. 274 Bādé Road Section 2, following the metro line then turning left. (The map in the MRT station was much more specific than the rather gauzy English-language map offering of the hotel).

beef noodles derp

There was nothing approximating English signage, as one should quite justifiably expect in Taiwan, but a line of hungry looking business people and a massive pot of stewed beef seemed to indicate I was in the right spot. I waited for a few minutes and was shown to a table right by the open kitchen. I pointed at the man next to me’s bowl of steaming beef noodles and was served promptly — grabbing a couple of the vegetable side dishes on offer to accompany my soup.

The flavor was rich and herbal, reminding me of a slightly sweetier, earthier rendition of good old Vietnamese pho. The noodles were thick and chewy, rather like udon. The beef shank had been cooked long and slow and had taken on a velvety, fall-apart texture, with remarkably attractive fatty marbling.

I tried reaching for the chili paste and was firmly pushed in the direction of Lin Dong Fang’s signature condiment, a combination of chili and lard that added fatty, smoky unctuousness to the soup. My only mistake? Not knowing how to order the beef AND tendon combo. Next time.

Taiwan business district street.
Taiwan business district street.


Located on Ximen Street in Taipei’s Banqiao District, it’s easiest to just hop on the MRT to get here. Get off at the Fuzhong Station on the Banqiao or “blue” line, and then follow the eminently convenient English language signs to the gardens itself. There are plenty of nice little street cafes and coffee shops in the area, and it makes for pleasant strolling after you’re finished with the gardens proper.

big ancient tree

Taiwan: The National Palace Museum Taipei and Some Cabbage

national palace museum

On Thursday we went to the National Palace Museum, which I’ve been hearing about from my Asia-dwelling family members for approximately forever. Located a bit outside of the center of the city in the green and hilly environs of Shilin, it’s one of the biggest collections of Chinese art in the world, with a whopping 696,000 artifacts spanning a (mere) 8,000 years of history.

Treasures fleeing the Japanese in the 1930s.
Treasures fleeing the Japanese in the 1930s.

Why is all this glorious stuff here in Taiwan and not in, say, Beijing? The vast riches of the Chinese empire were stored in the Forbidden City until the Japanese invasion in 1933, when the artifacts were evacuated. Returned to Nanjing after World War II, they changed hands again after Chiang Kai-shek realized that the Communists would defeat him. A total of 2,972 crates of artifacts (roughly 22 percent of the total collection) were shipped to Taiwan, representing some of the finest objects ever produced in the entirety of Chinese history. Considering the incredibly rough period of history these artifacts were evacuated in, it’s a wonder that many of these delicate, small, and exceedingly valuable pieces have survived.

Needless to say, the People’s Republic of China considers the collection to be stolen, although relations appear to be thawing somewhat in this regard — in 2009, China and Taiwan agreed to the first-ever joint exhibition of artifacts. Who knows what will happen in the future?

What matters for the purposes of this brief blog post is that you’d be a real dumbass to visit Taipei without making a visit here, to put it delicately. Prioritize appropriately.

In light of this, my dad and I decided it’d be a good idea to hire a guide for two hours, to give us some grounding in the massive scope of the exhibits and explain what we were looking at. The cost came out to $150 and I’d say it was worth it. Jennifer Tang proved to be a lovely woman with a long background in Chinese painting, and came at the exhibit with an obvious and profound affection for everything we saw — pointing out fine details or providing the background story of how one object or another came to be, and came to enter the imperial collection.

jadeite cabbage

The most famous item here is probably a carved jade cabbage, which is accompanied by another piece of jade that looks remarkably like a piece of roasted meat. These two venerated art objects may sound rather pedestrian, but when you actually push through the crowd to gaze upon these Rocks That Look Like Food, you’ll be more impressed than you anticipated.

The Jadeite Cabbage, which is white at the bottom and tapers to a luxuriant green at the top, has a locust and a katydid concealed amidst the leaves, and was supposed to be a present symbolizing fertility for the Kuang-hsü Emperor’s Consort Chin. It could also be mean to “chastise fatuous officials.” Or it could be a remarkably attractive and valuable representation of a bug-infested vegetable. You make what you want of it .

meat shaped stone

Here is the Meat-Shaped Stone. You thought I was kidding, didn’t you? I knew it was a glorious work of art because it suddenly and irrevocably made me hungry.

Other highlights here include remarkably intricately carved ivory boxes, which allegedly took so long to execute that a single piece might be passed down for three generations (assuming, presumably, that three generations did not produce someone with awful hand-eye coordination). Our guide said that legend has it these fine carvers — working in mediums as tiny as peach-pits — sometimes did their work without even opening their eyes. “They had a very special feel for it,” she said, reverently.

Jade Bixie amulet, of which I now own a paperweight.
Jade Bixie amulet, of which I now own a paperweight.

Ritual jades from the exceedingly antique Xia and Shang dynasties were also very interesting, including facial covers and plugs for funerals. “There was always a chance that the dead would come back,” our guide said.

bamboo spring
Tang Yin’s remarkable renderings of bamboo.

Paintings are of course a major draw here and the exhibits rotate regularly, and the current exhibit features Ming Dynasty master Tang Yin. His contemplative nature paintings are gorgeous, and his life story — a brilliant middle-class academic screwed by the Imperial system, a poet, an artist, and business-man — adds flavor to the works themselves. I was particularly taken with his simple renderings of bamboo, in which he used dark and light washes of ink to portray leaves shaking in a rainstorm.

If you do not have a guide, it is best to simply wander around and look at what catches your fancy. This is a wonderful place to get totally lost in, and there’s always more to see — an immense scroll here, a massive jade disc there, an exhibit of antique medical textbooks in Chinese tucked into a back gallery, and son on and so forth. There are interpretative signs in English, and many interesting interactive exhibits, as well as an audioguide.


It is best to come either early or rather late. The middle of the day finds the museum absolutely overrun with tourists, mostly clumping together in sardine-like tour group packs. Someone will be shouting at them and waving a flag around in your face. Avoid at all costs. (There is a brief let-up during the lunch hour). Budget at least 3 hours here, especially when factoring in queuing time if you manage to come here right at the very peak of Milling Tour Group. You can take a taxi here, or you can take the MRT to the Shilin stop and then board a shuttle bus.

There are no photos allowed and no backpacks either, but the nice ladies at the coat-check will keep your things for you unmolested. You can bring your phone in, but expect to be collared by an irate guard if you try to Instagram something — we saw this principle in action.

We liked stopping at the tea-house at the very top of the main gallery, which had a menu of noodles and light dim-sum snacks, and a good view of the little green valley that the museum is set in. It was surprisingly uncrowded around lunchtime.

Finally, the museum shops are excellent and have a pleasing selection of stuff from fine art reproductions to hilariously awesome kitsch, and you should probably know that I absolutely adore ridiculous, mildly personally humiliating souvenir opportunities. Our family now has more key-chains and magnets featuring plastic representations of a jade cabbage than we know what to do with. I also have a t-shirt with the Jadeite cabbage on it, although I picked that up at the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. Don’t leave Taiwan without one.

Hobby Lobby: No, Preventing Cheap Access to Contraceptives Won’t Save You Money

The font of all evil.
The font of all evil.

Amidst the explosion of justifiable online rage over the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby ruling, it’s worth remembering one thing: subsidizing birth control saves taxpayers money.

Many supporters of the Supreme Court ruling noisily claim that they’re opposed to insurance-covered contraception because it will cost them money. “But I don’t want to paaaayyy for it!” they say. “Self-actualized adults should pay for their own medical care!”

Cute idea, I suppose, if you never quite outgrew that extravagantly selfish Ayn Rand phase. But this “fiscally conservative” stance happens to be unsupported by fact.

Let’s refer back to a 2011 Brookings Institution study, which found that unintended pregnancies are expensive: really expensive. Researchers found that US taxpayers shell out about $12 billion annually for unintended pregnancies.

And there’s a lot of them: almost half of all US pregnancies are not expected, a proportion that hits 60 percent when one is dealing with teenaged, unmarried, or low income women.

While the numbers are grim, there’s an easy solution: public policy that hits the problem on multiple fronts, including access to inexpensive birth control. Per Brookings: “There is strong evidence that expansions in access to publicly subsidized family planning services can affect rates of contraceptive use and unintended childbearing.”

Ok, but what about those poor, long-suffering insurance companies?

It’s true that it’s less clear if insurance companies themselves save money on providing contraception. Factcheck.org concludes that evidence is distinctly murky either way, eventually concluding that while the President’s contention that contraceptive insurance will pay for itself cannot currently be proven right, it’s also impossible to prove it wrong. 

Most evidence certainly seems to suggest that the up-front costs of providing coverage are minimal. US government data claims adding contraceptions to an insurance coverage planwould only increase premiums by 0.5% annually, while a 2011 study estimated a cost of $26 per enrollee per female.

I believe many of us happily spend that much per week on fast food,  and it’s a particularly low cost to take into account when one contemplates how expensive unplanned pregnancies are for everyone.

Does even that small amount of money sound usurious and cruel to you? I weep, but I will also point out that you probably do pay taxes. Which means that the $12 billion in expenses Brookings documented will come out of your pocket eventually, one way or another.

The source of all this recent, frenzied Internet.
The source of all this recent, frenzied Internet.

What’s more: all kinds of basic preventative care cost insurers money. These would include measures that get a lot less frothy media play, such as basic cancer screening, cholesterol drugs, routine checkups, and other boringly quotidian measures. This is done because a wise collective risk pool prefers to spend a little money now rather than lot of money later. That applies to major health events from heart attacks to — yes — unintended pregnancies.

There’s also the fact that American women themselves seem to have saved an immense amount of money on contraception since Obamacare came into play. A recent IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics study found that women saved $483 million in out of pocket contraceptive costs in 2013 alone.

If one operates under the at-times-controversial notion that sexually active women are legitimate taxpayers like everyone else, that means a very substantial portion of the population is finding subsidized birth control to be wonderfully thrifty.

And the money those women are saving will help them improve their lives, in many ways beyond a less stress-filled sex life. A 2013 Guttmacher study documents the positive improvements women reported in their own lives due to contraceptive access, while there’s profuse evidence from around the world documenting how access to family planning services improves the lives of everyone — women and men included.

Finally, many women use birth control pills for reasons that have nothing to do with being a Big Slutty Slut — myself included. They’re used for painful and disfiguring medical conditions from polycystic ovary syndrome to cystic acne to dangerously heavy menstrual periods.

Here, of course, is where it gets tricky. Many women, per Guttmacher, use the pill for both medical reasons and for its contraceptive capabilities. If you’re a proponent of a small, un-intrusive government, you should agree that I’d rather not have my insurance company monitoring my house or covertly rummaging through my trash for signs of an active sex life.

So, let me ask you again, “fiscally conservative, small government” defenders of Hobby Lobby: why do you want to cost the taxpayer money? Why do you want to potentially invade women’s privacy?

And if you admit that you don’t actually care about the well-documented savings contraceptive access provides, then what really bothers you about birth control pills?

Monterey Bay Aquarium: Tentacles and Photos of Tentacles


spotted jellyfish

Between the last post and this one, I’ve graduated with my Masters, finished a thesis about drones (surprise!), and have traveled to the East Coast to see family. This made me embarrassingly remiss about blogging.

Here’s some recent photos from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Myself, my cousin Laura, and my friend Curran all made the trek down there during my graduation weekend, intent on viewing the anticipated glories of the Tentacles special exhibit for ourselves.

Find the lurking baby cuttlefish.
Find the lurking baby cuttlefish.

I’ve had a slightly weird life-long love affair with tentacled creatures of the deep, starting with a childhood in which I had no teddy bears but a remarkably diverse assortment of plush tentacled sea life instead. I was insistent at an early age that Things With Noses Aren’t As Cute, and would become extremely offended if someone dared portray an octopus with a bullshit faux, circular nose. Mostly, I found them fascinating: as intelligent as cats, able to change color at will, and remarkably effective, sneaky predators.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 1.41.34 AM

My love of cephalopods has persisted into adulthood: I had a giant squid battling a whale on the cake my mom got me for my undergraduate graduation, while my family exchanges clever squid-themed gifts whenever we find ourselves in the same geographic location. Becoming a scuba diver only made me fall more deeply in love: seeing the real thing jetting about the ocean floor, lurking in coral, undulating.

I encountered a cuttlefish in the Philippines last summer — a tiny little job, about the length of my already-small middle finger. It was hovering by a piece of coral and took cranky note of my existence: I had spotted it and begun squealing in glee quietly to myself through a regulator.

Brittle star tentacles.
Brittle star tentacles.

I drew closer and the cuttlefish nonchalantly positioned itself behind the coral, operating under the assumption I wouldn’t be able to see it. This didn’t work, and when I peered at it from the other side, it grew irate, turned black, and blasted a miniscule, delicate spurt of ink into my face.

This is probably the cutest thing that has ever happened to me or will ever happen to me.

Lurking giant octopus.
Lurking giant octopus.

In any case: the Tentacles exhibit was really excellent. A short entry-way with a display of Greek pots with squid on them and popular portrayals of these beasts throughout history, and into the exhibits: giant octopi, bigfin squid, stumpy cuttlefish, chambered nautilus, and many other delightful, odd creatures.

The Aquarium mastered the care and breeding of jellyfish and has used its considerable resources and scientific knowledge to do the same for some rather unusual species of cephalopods: there are critters here you are unlikely to have previously viewed through the smudged glass of some also-ran aquarium.

They're hard to photograph. Had to outsource to Wikipedia.
Flamboyant cuttlefish are hard to photograph. Had to outsource to Wikipedia.

My favorite by far was the flamboyant cuttlefish, a flip-phone sized creature that is colored in orchid-like purples and yellows. In severe contradiction to the floral beauty of its exterior, the flamboyant cuttlefish is the Pug of the ocean: it trundles slowly and with seemingly great exertion to wherever it is going, on two inward turned tentacles. They look unlikely in that adorably awkward way so favored by human onlookers, and as we observed, that pathos-laden lack of grace applies to hunting: they don’t seem to be that hot at it.

As we looked into the aquarium, a clear plastic tube appeared and emitted a few dozen tiny pink shrimp: lunch time. The shrimp found their way to the yellow sand of the bottom and we crowded around in anticipation. But the cuttlefish did not gracefully devour them.

Gorgeous chambered nautilus.
Gorgeous chambered nautilus.

They trundled. They trundled towards the shrimp with staunch, lugubrious intent. A cuttlefish feeds by jerking a tentacle out from its center mass of tentacles towards the prey, and then yanking the hapless victim back into its (hidden) beak – the effect is rather like a frog.

Unfortunately, the flamboyant cuttlefish kept missing. They would jerk out a tentacle, and miss the shrimp by a few centimeters, and the shrimp would fail to notice and jet away. The cuttlefish looked frustrated, and the shrimp looked almost pleased, if it’s possible for a shrimp to be pleased.

moody giant octopus

One shrimp actually hopped onto the back of one of the more hopeless cuttlefish, after evading a particular miserable attempt at tentacle-grabbing. The cuttlefish immediately became alarmed: it shifted from magenta to a deep, blackish purple — angry colors, the species equivalent of yelling “Oh Shit.”

The shrimp hung on, and the cuttlefish tried backing up, propelling itself with little ineffectual squirts of water. The shrimp hung on. Another ferocious backwards puff, and the shrimp finally became dislodged. The cuttlefish reared up, positioning its tentacles in a savage, cobra-like display, rippling with black and purple and white. Surely it would learn. Surely it would submit.

The cuttlefish came closer, and the shrimp hopped on its back again.

cuttlefish couple

More great exhibits awaited: graceful bigfin squid with giant eyes, lugubrious giant squid, steampunk animated displays explaining what it’s *like* to be an octopus. We even got to watch cuttlefish have weirdly rough sex, preceded by an aggressive, ink-filled slugfest between at least a dozen combatants.

You must go see this exhibit. It is more entertaining than anything on television, or at least equivalent to YouTube.

Here’s a gallery of my other photos:



Bottega – Yountville, California

bottega kitchen

Bottega Napa Valley
6525 Washington St, Yountville, CA 94599

My family takes a bi-monthly or so road trip from Sacramento to Napa to go to restaurants and buy wine, which really translates into “spending a day pleasantly making fabulously wealthy people even more fabulously wealthy, sort of a wealthy-people vicious cycle of overeating.” If you detect a mild, self-loathing tone creeping into my food-blogging, you may be diagnosing something lurking below my soul. Not that I’m passing up the wine and cheese.


We had been meaning to try Celebrity Chef (TM) Michael Chiarello’s Yountville outlet for some time now. I’ve been vaguely aware of Chiarello for years, ever since he played the slightly menacing, goomba-esque presence on Top Chef, and roughly after his rustic lifestyle catalogs begin arriving in regular shoals in my parent’s mail-box.

An exceedingly clever businessman, the California native parlayed high-end Italian cooking into television shows, a winery, regular appearances in the media, a line of furniture, and God knows what else — picture a much gruffer looking Martha Stewart, although I know Chiarello has never been to prison. We made a lunch reservation at Bottega.

The restaurant is dark inside and full of brass and amber accents, creating a late-night feeling even when it’s high noon outside and getting progressively hotter. An open-style kitchen allows diners to watch the kitchen team move in a fast paced frenzy, slinging huge metal pots with preternaturally strong wrists. The warm color given off by the flames of the oven, interplaying wit the cold steel of the fixtures, lit them all in a delicate, Renaissance-like tone. It was good viewing.

We were seated quickly, thanks to our reservations, and began paging through the immense wine list and the rather interesting cocktail menu. Mindful of our planned itinerary of paying people well over $10 a pop to take small swigs of their fermented grape juice, we stuck with the non-boozey stuff — the ginger lemonade was surprisingly delicious.

The menu, true to form, is a combination of California local ingredients and contemporary Italian cooking, with ingredients like sea urchin and nettles bumping shoulders with ricotta gnocchi and grilled skirt steak.

bottega brussel salad

The shaved brussel sprouts salad was tucked into a small pyramid (and I do mean rather small) but had a delightfully spring-y taste, evading the uncomfortable chewiness of less worthy raw brussel sprouts preparations. The combination of egg, almond, pecorino cheese and Meyer lemon gave the dish an earthy, season-appropriate richness. I want to try to emulate this at home.

bottega meat balls

Meatballs, polpettas, whatever — these were excellent, composed of extremely tender grilled shortrib meat that fell apart with silky intensity when poked with a spoon. They were served with a hummus-like puree made from sunchoke, a somewhat under-adored vegetable. This is the kind of thing you would imagine yourself ordering in a simplified form at an Italian estate after slaying a slag sometime in 1723, or at least these are the fantasies with which I sustain my life. I should build more slaying into my routine.

bottega minestrone

Minestrone featured tender green chard, flatleaf spinach, nettles, and wild vineyard mustard, served in a prosciutto broth with potato and a slab of bread. Tasty, earthy, and violently rich in nutrients, this nevertheless struck me as not fancy enough for the setting — the sort of thing I’d probably be able to whip up some simulacra of in an afternoon in between bouts of pretending to write. You’re paying Napa restaurant prices — in my mind, you might as well try something that involves obnoxious procedure and cutting tiny things into even tinier things, thanks to the efforts of some poor prep cook who is perennially being shouted at for breathing.

bottega duck

I ordered the duck three ways because I have always been highly susceptible to duck. I will say right now this was a monumentally enormous restaurant dish, the sort of thing that you look at and think “Did they make some kind of mistake?”

But no, this is half a duck — the breast is roasted until tender and juicy, the leg prepared in a tender confit, and the liver (presumably deriving from a different duck) smeared on a sidebar crostini. Accents were watercress and a strawberry compote garnish, although these serve somewhat as afterthoughts for the duckfat-dripping main event. I managed to finish it. It might have been poorly advised. I did leave a small piece of pate on the crostini, which I looked at with both embarrassment and dog-like lust as it was taken away at the end of the meal. (This is probably a metaphor for something). This is not delicate or particularly sophisticated food, but you will be absolutely good on the duck front for a long while to come.

bottega corn

Less deliciously egregious was a pasta made with corn meal and mushrooms. It sounded rather interesting on paper but was too sweet in practice, producing a rather cloying effect. I don’t like overly sweet cornbread, and I resent it in my pasta as well.

cavatelli shrimp

Cavatelli was served with a sea urchin sauce and hefty head-on prawns. A delicate white bowl was provided for the little remnant crustacean skulls. It was almost as if they knew us. The sauce was delicate, had a bit of saffron in it, and had that delightfully buttery and of-the-sea essence that defines all fine seafood pastas. Would order again. Definitely the most refined dish of the meal.

No dessert. Both because we’re not really into that, and because I had just eaten half a duck with accompaniments. The existential shame was already complete.

The sizing of the portions is smallish but not quite on point if you’re hoping to do a true Italian-style meal, with a small starter, a pasta course, and a main dish — judging by the quantity of the duck, this would induce almost instant gout and possible death. I am not sure if this is a bad thing.

Inexplicably, there is no pizza oven here. There is a large wood-burning oven, but I remain unsure what it is for. Maybe creating rustic clay pots.

Would I return again? Yes. Celebrity chef foolishness aside, the food was good and the menu items interesting, and I’d like to poke around what they’ve got on offer to a greater extent.

Also, they sell black truffle potato chips in the store next door. You want to get those. Eat them slowly while you read Piketty and contemplate what has brought you to this place.


Korean Food at Myung Dong Tofu Cabin – San Mateo, California

Myung Dong Tofu Cabin
2968 S Norfolk St, San Mateo, CA 94403
(650) 525-1484

tofu cabin pork stew
Pork and kimchi stew.

I love California strip malls. Well, allow me modify that: strip malls of a particular variety and tone. The sort I’m talking about aren’t populated with dollar stores and sporting goods marts. The sort of strip mall I like functions as a small oasis of excellent Asian food, where multiple Asian restaurants cluster together, seemingly for protection — the equivalent of small natural bastions of biodiversity.

The excellent Myung Dong Tofu Cabin sits in one of these Asian food gallerias, next to a Chinese bakery and a pho shop. Owned and operated by a small crew of middle-aged women, the delightfully named Tofu Cabin specializes in Korean home-cooking, with a couple of DIY BBQ tables for those feeling fancy.

At this home-cooking — the heart and soul of Korean cuisine, if you ask me – this place absolutely excels. With lower prices by a buck or two than the other Korean restaurants I’ve found in the Peninsula, I believe I’ve found my new standby.

pork bbq myung dong
Spicy BBQ pork.

I’m usually a bit ambivalent to SoonDooBoo, perhaps because it’s often rather uninspired. The soondooboo here was a molten, flavorful, slightly creamy brew, with bits of beef. They took us seriously when we said “spicy.” My sinuses were rendered as open as the Panama Canal.  Pork BBQ was the right kind of greasy and exceedingly prolific in the full portion, with a potent dose of red pepper and sliced jalapeno. It was particularly good in a fresh lettuce wrap with some kimchi and a bit of hot sauce.

Seafood dolsot bibimbap was also excellent, served in a very large black stone cauldron, and filled with shrimp and squid. I was less impressed with the kimchi ji gae (pork and kimchi stew), which definitely featured far more kimchi than it did slices of pork belly.

banchan tofu cabin

The banchan selection is fresh, if slightly austere, and by austere I think I actually mean “healthy.” (Where’s my mayonnaise drenched noodle salad?) Sweet black beans are a rare site on these spreads in recent years. Still, where’s the tiny fish with equally tiny eyeballs? They defined my childhood. The kimchi is excellent. A Korean restaurant rises and falls upon the virtue of its kimchi.

Service is friendly and homey, and the food comes out pleasingly quickly. Free green tea and the correct kind of purple rice. I’ll be back, probably over and over and over. Korean food has a peculiar addictive quality for me, a Proustian madeline.