June 17, 2010

The Sport of Kings

The thoroughbred was met with silence as he entered the race track. I looked around and noticed the audience was largely made up of senior citizens who were there to gamble away their retirement savings and government pensions. Through the centuries, the popularity of the equestrian sport has always been tied to betting on its outcome. I took a seat in the grandstand right in front of the finish line. The tag line of Vancouver's Hastings Racecourse is "Bred for Excitement", but I had no idea what to anticipate in my first live horse race.

With one devastating injury all that separates them from life and death, the careers of race horses are thankless and short lived. They are given mildly amusing monikers such as "Hoof Hearted" and "Gotta Pee". The horses were escorted to their starting gates where they calmly took their position. A shot rang out and they were off, their powerful legs picking up speed as they galloped around the race course. The diminutive jockeys did their best to guide the noble steeds to the finish line, but only one would feel the thrill of victory.


“A horse never runs so fast as when he has other horses to catch up and outpace.”
~ Ovid ~

June 14, 2010

Mont Saint-Michel

While spending a week in France in the summer of 2007, I took two day trips. One was to see the famous gardens at Versaille and the other was to the abbey at Mont Saint-Michel. One kilometer off the coast of Normandy lies the rocky islet of Mont Saint-Michel, rising sharply out of the Atlantic Ocean. At the prodding of the Archangel Michael, the bishop of Avranches founded the fortress-like monastery in 708 AD. It could only be reached by a natural land bridge at low tide, but would be protected from intruders at high tide.

The history of Saint Michael's Mount is filled with strife. It appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, which depicts the Norman conquest of England. During the Hundred Years War, the English met with repeated failure in their attempts to seize the island. The French Revolution saw the fortified abbey converted into a prison due to the high security nature of the compound. With the help of Victor Hugo, the site was restored as a national monument in the late 1800's.


"I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all."
~ Ecclesiastes 9:11 ~

June 03, 2010

Shaolin Temple

The Shaolin Monks had fascinated me from an early age, even before I watched them perform live in Vancouver. The acrobatic warrior monks were from a far off land shrouded in mystery. In reality, life is much more mundane at the Shaolin Temple than I had imagined it to be. In 464 AD an Indian monk had come to China to spread the Buddhist faith. He did not speak for nine years and made a hole in a wall with his eyes. After that, he established the Shaolin order of priests. These priests were also well versed in the martial arts. Under the watchful guidance of their masters, repetitive and rigorous training is undertaken by hundreds of youth until the requisite skills are mastered.

The most interesting part of the trip was getting there. From Beijing I took a fast train to Zhengzhou, a bustling transit hub and capital of Henan. After lunch I caught a bus to Dengfeng, the nearest town to the Shaolin Temple. From there a minibus had to be taken to the monastery. Stuffed to the brim with passengers, all the standees suddenly fell flat to the ground after the conductor barked something. I looked out and saw that we were passing the police station. The extra passengers had to hide from view so that it would appear the minibus was not carrying too many riders.


“My imagination is a monastery and I am its monk.” ~ John Keats

June 02, 2010


In a country where meeting a fluent English speaker is only slightly less difficult than finding a good driver, I get by mostly with sign language, grunts, pointing, head nods, and artistic skills. One of the hardest things is to communicate with barbers on how I want my hair cut -"Same style, but shorter". A couple of times a Chinese friend accompanied me and explained to the barber what I wanted. On several other occasions, I would explain my desires over the phone to a Chinese speaker and then hand it over to the hairstylist so that the instructions could be relayed onwards.

I decreased my reliance on others even though my Chinese skills did not improve. I started indicating the length of hair I wanted remaining on my head by showing the gap between my thumb and forefinger. I then made a "bzzzzzzzzzzz" noise to suggest the use of a trimmer for my sideburns and the back of my head. This met with limited success. When a barber tried to buzz the top of my head off, I quickly fled the scene. I do not have a preferred barbershop, because the turnover rate is quite high and there is no guarantee a capable hairstylist will be found twice at the same location. Nowadays, I just find out the price of the haircut and sit down. The barber does the rest.


"There's many a man has more hair than wit." ~ William Shakespeare

May 31, 2010

Karst Country

It was a gloomy day, but spirits were high as we set sail on the Li River. On the bus to the ferry terminal, I had met two Spaniards and an American who were also on their way from Guilin to the sleepy riverside town of Yangshuo. Dozens of Chinese tourists joined us for the cruise before returning to the big city the same day, while we remained behind in tiny Yangshuo. Midway through the cruise I spotted two men on a bamboo raft approaching our ferry. I thought they were pirates and prepared myself accordingly. They had actually come to sell souvenirs to the ship's passengers.

A large tributary of the Yangtze, the Li River is famous for its karst formations. The jagged peaks line the river, each bend revealing scenery more spectacular than the previous. Karsts are formed over thousands of years, as rainwater combines with carbon dioxide to dissolve bedrock into intricate patterns. The Li River is spectacular enough to warrant a place among China's currency hall of fame, appearing on the back of the 20 RMB note.


“If my ship sails from sight, it doesn't mean my journey ends, it simply means the river bends.” ~ John Enoch Powell