Tuesday, July 17, 2007
I was really nervous the night of June 19, didn’t sleep well. I’ve lived in hotels and airports and trains for years, but this is a very different trip: to China as a tourist, where I’ve only been in very structured business travel, and via Korea where I’ve never been.
Ranon picked me up on schedule just after 10, and drove me to the airport. Check-in and security were the usual breeze, and I almost started to relax. I had plenty of time to pick up Xin’s Shiseido lotion at the Duty-Free, have my coffee in the lounge, and even a Grand Marnier on ice, all before noon. J There were the usual struggles to get an internet connection in the lounge, but a phone call to MDA’s service desk caused it to miraculously start working, just as Dennis came on the line to tell me my laptop’s getting old and the wireless radio’s the first thing to go. I had a few minutes left before boarding, to send a couple hurried emails.
The flight was longer than London, over 10 hours, but quite pleasant in business class. Hey, there were two friendly and beautiful Asian ladies among the flight attendants! The service director was a man I recognized from the Vancouver – London route, who admired my memory and chatted with me about Seoul.
Incheon Airport is large and new and technologically sophisticated. There was just barely enough English on a few signs to get me through it. Immigration glanced at the form I filled on the plane and waved me through; customs glanced at my other form and waved me through. A foreign exchange booth gave me wons at 893 to the dollar, which I’m told is pretty good.
Then came the hard part. I’d heard there was a 13,000 won ($14) bus to the hotel, but I didn’t know how to find it. I was looking over a useless billboard of bus information when a taxi driver tried to offer me a ride for 95,000; I said no thanks. Another man walked up and asked if I wanted hotel bus pick-up; I was relieved and said yes, following him. I got suspicious when he walked to the parking garage, but his van said “hotel pickup” so I wasn’t completely hostile yet. I asked him several times how much it cost, but his English didn’t seem up to telling me; he kept saying either “hotel pay” or “pay at hotel”. As we drove out of the parkade he asked again which hotel, and phoned them. Perhaps he gets a deal from some hotels for some lengths of stay? Anyway, he finally admitted it would be 120,000 won on my hotel bill, which I said I would not pay, I’d take the bus or train. He drove me back to the parkade. J
I found the train station, and after a few conversations, managed to buy a ticket into Seoul for 3,100. It was a very efficient, sparkling new train, almost empty, like a Heathrow Express except cheaper and newer.
From the train terminus, with a little help from people who could mime with me, I bought a subway ticket for 1,500. The pretty girl from the train station had given me a subway map and shown me the transfers and final station I needed. Didn’t see a single non-Asian throughout my entire 1.5 hours on the crowded subway. Everyone was polite, and it was interesting to look at all the different people in the rush-hour crowd. My cellphone doesn’t work in Korea and I’d had so much reading on the plane, I mostly just looked at people and signs and the streets going by.
The subway station was at one end of a giant shopping mall, and the Coex Intercontinental Hotel is at the other end, so I had a long interesting walk to get to my room. Everyone in the mall seemed to be a twentysomething fashion model. I think I saw one other Caucasian, and perhaps a handful of people over 30.
Ah, it was such a relief to find iPass had this hotel in its menu, so I got high speed internet for free, and could plug back into my normal life for a rest!
Xin’s friend Rupa came to my hotel and bought me Vietnamese dinner in the mall, for bringing her some Fengyoujing (menthol & eucalyptus oil).
I thought it might be a little plane, not distinguishing Business from Economy, since Asiana was an airline I didn’t recognize, and it was just a 90-minute flight. Hah! It was a 767-300 more spiffily attired than Air Canada flies. I enjoyed some morning zhou in the business class lounge before boarding. On the plane, I sat beside an interesting Korean woman who described her furniture manufacturing & distribution company, with her factory in Beijing she’s visited monthly since 1996.
Her labour costs have tripled in that time, and she’s considered moving the factory to a cheaper country, but instead increasingly outsources components, moving the Beijing office up the food chain to do design and assembly.
Here was another modern, technically sophisticated airport, impressive with the number of 747s and rapidity of baggage handling. The foreign exchange booth wouldn’t do more than $1000 and tried to give me a rate much worse than the Bank of China rate posted on their electronic board, so I took our cash and walked out of the baggage room….
And there, in an interesting red dress, was my sweetheart waiting for me. God, 6 weeks was a long time! My bags dropped with a crash as I hugged her, hard and long. We had a very large audience for our reunion.
Beijing’s sky is still terribly polluted, and the airport expressway crawls with too much traffic. The Olympic train is under construction; I wonder if it will be ready for 2008? They’re still just installing the concrete pylons along the roadway.
I remembered the airport-to-Beijing roadside from my 97/99 visits: poor laborers by the hundred doing construction, giant billboards of Fortune 500 companies, crawling traffic on 4 lanes a side, car makes I don’t recognize. Geographically, the Beijing area looks like it wants to be a simple dusty desert, but mankind has forcefully planted trees and built a city, dumping just enough water in to force some grass to grow. Between the planted trees, there is dusty ground. It takes work to live here, but the Chinese have done that work, by the millions of man-hours.
Beijing looks wealthier than in 97/99 when I visited. More of the slums have been flattened, more middle-class apartment blocks and office towers have been built. From the plane, I saw dozens of multilane freeways criss-crossing the plains from Tianjin to Beijing.
The city streets are crowded and noisy. The traffic still moves with beautiful chaotic continual negotiation. Traffic lights are treated as rough guidelines; pedestrians and cars and buses and bikes interweave constantly.
My stiff neck was killing me, so I desperately wanted a chiropractic massage, and I’d heard so much about the cheap terrific one-hour massages in China. Our apartment has it for 100Y, but we got paper advertisements for 70Y. GuoLi said there was a “blind people’s massage” down the street, which usually means very professional treatment. We found it on the first floor of a luxury apartment building, around from the private gardens filled with children playing. There weren’t any blind people there, but they did have about 6 masseurs, for 80Y/hour, including Chinese manipulative massage. The man who greeted us asked about my shoulder, and seemed confident of treating it. Wow he was good… I could feel he zeroed in on the problem areas, and gave me a thorough head, neck, shoulder, and back massage, including chiropractic cracks!
The old man laughed as he threw down a card, toothless and happy. Hundreds of couples, and old men, and young families wander the park, or sit in the shade along the painted walkways. Like at YiHeYuan, but less crowded, this park feels like a park not a museum.
I loved the 500-year-old ornate painted wood architecture, equivalent to the Catholic cathedrals of Europe, but of a different style, more spacious, surrounded by 400 Cypress trees instead of city streets. The rooms are huge and bare, a palace the size of a football field with a simplicity of form hiding the thousands of individual carvings along the ceiling, but still simple in its lack of furnishing.
The Echo Wall actually works! I could here GuoLi speaking in a normal voice, though out of sight at least 50m away, around the concave curve of the 5m stone wall. More magical was the stone circle, a simple marble court on a raised hill, surrounded by marble fences. When you stand on the middle stone and speak, your voice is amplified, sonorous, deep, and powerful. Crowds took turns taking pictures of their friends on the stone. A few were brave enough to speak; one young Chinese girl shouted “yeah!!!” and blushed. GuoLi told me to sing, so I started O Canada while she clicked a picture. People laughed.
We walked through rough paths between the Cypress, a few kilometers from altar to dais to palace to temple, two hours all together. Collapsing with relief into the air-conditioned bus #35, eager to get home to rest for the party.
China Development Briefing Party
Sunday evening, we’ve just returned from the party. Xin was busy networking and pushed me away, so I plunged into the crowd and met as many people as I could! I managed a first for me: flirted with a very pretty Chinese girl who knew zero English. We’d just about run out of my Chinese when her boyfriend showed up. J As happens so often, her conversation was interesting in inverse proportion to her physical attractiveness. Sigh.
I talked for a long time with Lin Gu, an enthusiastic young journalist, who worked the last 8 years or so for XinHua, and spent the last 9 months at Berkeley as a visiting scholar. Now he’s trying freelance journalism (“free to starve” he joked). He’d love to live and work in KunMing, but it’s harder to find work there; he’s being approached by several people to work in Beijing. We talked about dating, and matchmaking websites, as well as differences between Canada and the US. He’s single and looking.
Funny that 30 minutes later a pretty young girl introduced herself to me, a 28-year-old BeiDa Communications post-grad working as a project manager for the Ministry of Science & Technology, also single and looking. Her last boyfriend of 17 months was an Acadian band member now back at university and becoming a commercial pilot. They lived together 4 months in Beijing; she’s never left China, but thanks to that relationship and her obvious language skills, she’s quite fluent and colloquial in English. Chen Wenjuan… works as a project manager in a “China Rural Technology Development Center, within the “Poverty Alleviation and Science Dissemination Division”. Wow. They work to pair up underemployed scientists or technicians with rural poor, to bring technology to the farmers.
It must have been the 10.5% Beijing beer; I was so extroverted and talkative, in Chinese and English both. It was a delightful party. I didn’t meet the principal myself… the laowai who organized the China Development Brief is leaving Beijing to return to Africa (Rhodesia?) to found another NGO. He made a speech in Chinese and I was envious, as I was of many Caucasians I saw at the party speaking fluent Chinese. Some day.
Sent: Sunday, June 24, 2007 10:51 PM
To: Timothy BULT
Subject: Hey from Wenjuan, from the party, lol
This is Wenjuan from this afternoon’s party. It was very nice talking to you and playing football with you 😛 Hopefully you will have a nice trip in Yunnan! And believe me, Kunming is not a beautiful city at all, go go go to Lijiang! 🙂
All the best!
Hello Wenjuan, I was delighted to see your email.
I understand why you say Kunming is not beautiful, but for me it is interesting to visit:
— The air is much cleaner than Beijing; there was a rain shower, but mostly clear blue sky; I haven’t seen that clear a sunshine since I left Vancouver.
— Most of the people where western clothes; they’re probably more fashionable than Vancouverites; a few people here and there have traditional costumes which look really nice.
— The people are more of a mix than Beijing: less foreigners, but a more subtle range of Chinese ethnic groups. I feel like there’s a lot of variety on the streets.
— I’m surprised at the wealth, even in this hinterland. 10 years ago I was surrounded by poverty everywhere in Beijing; one couldn’t avoid it; it was obvious when I stepped out of my 5-star hotel. Today, I’m sure I can find it, in Kunming and in Beijing, but I’m surrounded by a middle class very similar to Canada’s. The cars are cheaper, and the bikes are older, but the standard of living doesn’t seem night and day different.
— It was so romantic to walk around the “Green Lake” in the center of town, a beautiful park full of lovers on benches looking out on the lotus leaves. The trees and bamboo are lit up by red and green and blue lights all around the lake, and paths with bridges criss-cross the lake. Old people are playing erhu’s and Chinese mandolins.
Anyway, my g/f has work to do in Kunming Tuesday to Saturday, then we’ll take a train to DaLi, and after a day or two, yes we’ll go to Lijiang. Thanks for the recommendation. 🙂
So, you might find this silly, but an idea hit me in the taxi after Sunday’s party. I met you, and I also met an enthusiastic friendly young man, a reporter who worked for Xinhua the last many years, but spent the past 9 months as a visiting scholar at Berkeley in California; now he’s trying to work freelance, because he loves the freedom of that kind of journalism (“freedom to starve”, he joked). We talked about dating, and he seemed quite similar to you. He wants to meet people naturally. You know, I really hate to let a sexy, intelligent, educated lady go, but realistically I’m very happy with my girlfriend, and I’m hardly in Beijing, so maybe the best I can do is try to be a bit of a friend to you? Would you be OK with me sending your email address to that man? I’d get such a kick out of it, if you two actually clicked. 🙂
Fly to Yunnan
An air-conditioned taxi was standing outside our apartment hotel. It cost only 78Y for the 45min ride, about $11. We’re both tired after not sleeping well… maybe too excited by the party, or by the upcoming trip.
Prices range from 1/6 to Vancouver-equal, with some odd juxtapositions. The taxi is 1/6, but apartment rentals mirror Vancouver’s. Western brands of moisturizer cost 26Y, and local crèmes are 3Y, sitting beside each other on the shelf. Restaurants range from 15Y to 500Y a meal.
The taxi drove by dozens of construction sites. How many buildings in Beijing are over 20 stories? We don’t know, but there must be hundreds. Inside the second ring road they’re restricted, to retain the majesty of the Forbidden City and TianAnMen, but from the second to the fourth ring, skyscrapers are spreading like a planted forest. There’s a sixth ring under construction.
I’m sitting in the airport at the domestic departure gates. A tour group of rather large American black ladies is looking for junk food and chatting across the aisle. Announcements come in Chinese and English. 20%+ of the crowd is Caucasian; I guess Chinese tourism is big.
Now I’m sitting in the Kunming Green Lake View Hotel, checking my email on the free high-speed internet, in a vast room we got for $50. I was the only Caucasian on the plane, but I did see two on the streets during our half-hour taxi ride from the airport.
A bookworm lived on an island, reading and reading, refusing to go to shore. His wife had to bring him food every day over a long bridge to the island. If she cooked the noodle soup at home, the noodles and meat and vegetables were soggy when she got to the man, so she invented a new way of cooking. She brought a very large bowl of boiling chicken broth, large enough that it didn’t cool off. She brought a dozen plates with thinly sliced meats and fish, bits of vegetables and spices, and fresh noodles. When she reached the island, she dumped everything into the hot broth, and it cooked instantly to make a fresh delicious soup.
Our first evening in Kunming, we found the highest recommended cross-bridge noodle house in town, across the street from our hotel. It took a while before we ate, as we tried to understand the system. You pay for the food at a booth as you enter, then try to find a table… upstairs if you buy more than 12Y. But they’re so busy, tables are scarce, and they’re full of the last party’s plates and papers. Finally we grabbed a table as a group left; a server hastily wiped it clean as our bowls appeared, leaving the floor filthy with napkins and food and other garbage. The 3% beer was watery but cold. But oh, the soup! It was delicious!
Green Lake Park
In the center of town is a small lake, criss-crossed and surrounded by tree-lined sidewalks and bridges. The water’s full of giant lotus plants, and bamboo sprouts around between the trees. Hundreds of benches are full of lovers, dozens of pagodas are full of amateur musicians playing for fun. A group of old people play ancient Chinese instruments while an old lady sang off-key into a cheap microphone amplifier. Everyone smokes and has fun late into the evening.
While Xin bought our next few airplane tickets, people from the tea shop next door waved me over for a cup. I sat and chatted with them for twenty minutes, about Vancouver, our jobs, and my travel in China, my girlfriend and how I met her. We laughed. One young man spoke a little English, less than my Chinese, so we tried to communicate in Chinese, while the girl poured us tiny cup after tiny cup of tea.
Wandering round Kunming
Thousands of little shops sell a few items each: cigarettes, shirts, suits, bras, cellphones, buns, water, KeKouKeLa (Coca Cola), cellphone plans, chicken feet, noodles, shoes, mopeds, bikes, tea, furniture, dirt. Yes dirt. My cellphone camera may not capture it well, but there was a stall on the side of the road full of yellow dirt for sale, a few doors down from a gleaming modern bank showing foreign exchanges on a large board. There are a lot of banks.
I enjoyed my walk by taking the most obscure streets possible, wandering past dirty apartment blocks, hardscrabble hole-in-the-wall stores that seem unlikely to sell anything. The green park I could see from my hotel turns out to be a military compound, with young soldiers standing guard at the entrances, at rock-hard attention with bayonet rifles at their side. Some people speak bits of English. A teenage girl said “hi” and smiled happily when I said “hi” back.
There was a tiny bakery, just a booth cut into the building along the street, with about 5 products. I bought a little hamburger pizza for lunch for 5Y, and a bag full of cookies for another 5Y. Communication was tough, but I thought I read the sign said 10 cookies for 10Y so I thought I got too good a deal, so maybe it was a different measure and I paid too much? It doesn’t matter, both were delicious.
This city has a little bigger population than Vancouver, but has 11 universities and colleges offering Bachelor’s degrees, constant bus service along all major routes, 24-hour McDonald’s, shops closing routinely at 9pm, professional massage services available til 3am or later, 6-lane highways throughout the city, and a vibrancy that’s exciting and inspiring.
XiShan Temples and Park
Our big expedition Wednesday was to Kunming’s main tourist draw, the XiShan (Western Mountain) park. We could have taken a couple of bus trips to get there, but the 30-minute taxi was only 34Y ($5) so we hopped in a taxi outside the door of our hotel. We joked about our good choice of taxi this time; it’s the usual Chinese subcompact, with a metal cage around the driver, but the seats were comfortable, and the cloths had recently been cleaned, and the air conditioning was working great.
As we drove, I stared at the passing city, feeling that I’m getting used to China, starting to feel at home, less than a week into my trip. It’s still fascinating, with new things to see every few seconds, but also familiar with patterns. Every street is a continuous sequence of shops, everyone is trying to sell something. There are bits of English here and there, apparently because it’s “cool”, certainly not because foreigners are the target market!
We passed a factory that looked just like Cominco Trail 30 years ago, except for the Chinese characters on the signs. From the large smokestack shapes, I guessed a coal-fired power plant, and guessing from the characters I recognized, I’m pretty sure that’s what it was. We were driving on an expressway with 3 lanes each side, built on a raised platform along the side of a large lake. It reminded me how much China’s investing in infrastructure – later from the mountaintop we could see several of these expressways criss-crossing the city. And they’re not empty! Every street is busy with cars.
The nicest apartment buildings compare with typical Vancouver apartments, and probably cost about the same. The low end are like the worst of the downtown East side of Vancouver… but I still haven’t seen the kind of poverty I did in Beijing 10 years ago. This country’s gotten so rich so fast, it’s ironic to call it “developing” except that it still is at breakneck speed!
We reached the gate to the park and paid our taxi. A man opened the taxi door for us and immediately started selling his “private” taxi service up the mountain. We said we’d walk, but he argued and argued… it’s 6km, he said, and he’d only charge us 10Y to go up – we won’t even have to pay the 10Y ticket fee to enter the park (by car) since he knows the people; just wait right here and I’ll come get you! We gave in, deciding to walk back down the 6km and save our energy for the hikes up at the top – a very good idea in later hindsight! Anyway the driver is another great example of the everpresent entrepreneurship in China; he has his car, and he accosts every tourist disembarking at the gate, to sell his incredibly cheap service, flaunting the laws, but making life pragmatically better.
The road wound up through the trees, the driver honked at the sharper corners in case someone was driving down on the wrong side; the road could just barely handle two cars plus the various pedestrians along the edge.
He let us off at another main gate, actually the midpoint of a gondola system – the gondola rises from the lakefront hotels up to this point, then an old Austrian ski lift slowly carries people near the mountaintop for a few yuan. At the midpoint, we wandered around the tourist stalls to look at the beautiful dolls, buy me a hat, eat some ice cream. We started walking up the road instead of taking the ski lift. It’s a narrower roadway, but without cars. A lovely view of the lake and city below, but every 3 meters along the path is another table of trinkets to look at: pipes and paintings, jewelry, fresh fruits, noodle soup, pots of corn-on-the-cob, stone carvings being made as you watch, embroidery. Like Mexico, the hawkers are friendly, mostly not very pushy, just waiting. If you look closer, some will try a few words of English, or just rattle on in Chinese about how beautiful their stuff is. J
We branched off the road onto a steeper path to climb up to the pavilion on the hill-top. This path was beautifully made, from 1-2m wide, of inlaid flat rocks carefully put together into steps and flat spaces. It goes on for more than a kilometer of stairs zigzagging up the mountain, sometimes shaded by lush forest, sometimes opening over rocky ground. Even here, there’s a little old lady selling water bottles, or a chance to shoot balloons with an air rifle, or cook you some noodles, every few dozen metres. You might read this thinking that much tourist commercialism is offensive, but I actually enjoyed it. They’re part of the environment. Later, there were other paths without vendors, and we got our peace and quiet.
A few hundred meters above where we met the top of the ski lift, we reached a beautiful pavilion overlooking the lake and city. Xin took some photos, and we bought a bottle of water from an ancient blind women squatting beside the trail. She tried hard to give us change from our 10Y note. She looked at least 80, and if she was faking blindness, she was doing an Oscar-winning job of it!
We wisely decided not to clamber over the rocks to reach the next summit, because we had a lot of hiking still to do to get back. We took the chair lift down to the midway station, and it was a fun experience. Our feet dangled, brushing the tree tops and bushes, and we relaxed looking out over the park, up to the various temples and pavilions dotting the mountainside, and down to the algae-filled lake and its hotels.
At midway, I finally bought a few of the presents I want to bring back to Canada, Xin doing the negotiating for me to save 30% or so. Before hiking down the mountain, we looked for a restaurant to have lunch at. What we found was delightful. An outdoor patio covered by overhanging tree branches and sun shades had scattered tables. A beautiful black dog wandered around. A cabinet with glass front and a few shelves had 20 or so plates with fresh food on them… raw pork, beef, mushrooms, a half dozen different vegetables (none familiar to me!). A pleasant young man asked us what we’d like, which we picked in a combination of words and pointing. He urged the mushrooms, which we accepted although they looked greenish… that’s how they’re supposed to look. We asked for them not to be too spicy and he smiled. Off he went around the corner to the kitchen door, shouting “Ma!”. We sat down and talked to the dog, while he went in and cooked, his mother silently wandering around collecting things, throwing out garbage, cleaning up.
They had beer, but not cold beer, so we ordered Pu’Er Cha, the famous local tea. It was strong and tasty, deep brown, and delicious. The food came quickly, and all of it was terrific, especially the mushrooms. The dog politely hovered. We talked for a long time, noticing the family do their business. A young boy came in yelling for his grandma to give him 20cents, which he got. The family dog happily sat beside us and ate our leftover bits of beef.
The bill came to 125, for three dishes plus rice and tea, under $19. Half of that was for the very expensive mushrooms. J The tea was cheap, but just about the best tea we’ve had yet in China, despite paying 110Y for expensive Pu’Er Cha in town the night before which was weak and tasteless. (Wikipedia says not to bother with the expensive tea houses by Green Lake – they over-charge for cheap tea; the best tea is much cheaper and away from the center of Kunming. Pu’Er Cha has gained so much of a brand recognition that a Yunnan town has officially changed its name to Pu’Er to capitalize… just like the other Yunnan town renamed Shangri-La.) I gave the man 200Y and he shouted at his father to give us the change. He fished some bills out of his pocket, but got it wrong, so we told him, and he shouted to confirm with his son, who was getting a receipt for us. Meanwhile, behind their desk we saw the very nice family beds, and their high-definition television which the boy was watching.
We wandered on down the park road, taking a walking path detour to the Tai Hua Buddhist temple. It cost a whole 6Y each to go into the temple. J It was incredibly peaceful and beautiful, with a large Buddha statue surrounded by 4 colourful guardian gods, a whole complex of beautifully carved wooden buildings, freshly restored and painted, though with some left unadorned. Aromas of wood and incense and many flowers abound. Walkways made for meditation, almost unpopulated as the crowds avoided this walkway. We wandered peacefully for 20 minutes through the gardens, taking pictures of the pond and its jumbled rocks and bamboo.
Down from the temple, the path was again the wide carved stone staircases, with long smooth stretches like paving stones, all a comforting brown shade, fitting into the wooded hillside like a glove.
Just below where it rejoined the road, a walled garden took another 3Y each, and was worth it even tired as we were. I did Tai Chi on the lawn of the magnolia grove. We wandered a nearly abandoned path through a bamboo forest.
When we finally reached the taxis at the foot of the hill, we were exhausted… but not exhausted enough not to bargain for a 40Y fixed-price taxi ride back to the hotel. We wanted a receipt, but the (illegal, since there weren’t any legal taxis waiting there) taxi driver didn’t have any. Xin said “if you want the 40Y, go find a receipt.” He found one, like she knew he would. No air conditioning, but the temperature was cooling in the evening so it was comfortable enough. He took shortcuts, dodging through various city streets, dodging the usual families of three each on a bicycle, or a scooter.
The shoulder was hurting again, so after dinner we searched for another Chinese massage. Our hotel’s facility was under renovation, so we walked around. The heavily advertised one in the mall across the street just pushed a package deal with sauna and food, and felt too pushy. We walked to the 5-star hotel behind ours to ask about their packages. Two formally dressed girls who spoke polite English showed us a hardbound menu, 580Y for 90-minute Chinese massage, among others. I picked a 166Y head, neck & shoulder package for 45 minutes, double the typical Chinese prices.
The very fancy room had incense burning, expensive furniture, light music playing. Another girl came in, wearing a formal Chinese suit. I was a little nervous with all the luxury, but looking forward to enjoying it – very expensive, so it should be really good, right? I lay down on my back and she started lightly pinching my ears. From the first touch, I knew she was lousy at massage: not feeling the body or emotion or anything of the person she’s massaging, not really focused on what she’s doing, not happy. I mentioned my sore shoulder and my hope she could help me, but it seemed she had a set routine and she stuck to it.
I gave up on the massage and decided to try enjoying a conversation, and that finally made the visit worthwhile, although sad. She didn’t speak a word of English, so I had a wonderful challenge to practice my Chinese. With many broken threads and false starts, and breaks where I just tried to enjoy the massage, our conversation meandered:
Sorry, I can only speak a little Chinese, but if it’s OK with you, I’ll practice.
You speak it very well! Where are you from?
I’m from Canada, Vancouver. This is my first time in Kunming, but I was in China 10 years ago for a month.
A month! That’s a long time. How long are you here this time?
I just arrived in Kunming this week; I’m staying two more weeks. This weekend we go to DaLi, then LiJiang, then XiShuangBanNa, then Shanghai, and finally back to Beijing.
You’re doing business here?
No, just resting. My girlfriend has meetings here in Kunming; she works, I just watch her work, and rest all the time. J
Your girlfriend is Chinese?
Yes, originally from Chongqing, but studied in Beijing, then the Netherlands, and now in Vancouver.
Oh! How big is she?
You mean how tall, or how many years old?
How many years.
Oh. She’s here now?
You mean in this hotel? No, she’s at our hotel, another one.
Oh. I know where.
How do you like this job?
I don’t like it.
Did you go to school for it? How long?
And how long have you been here in Kunming? Are you from here?
I’ve been here 4 years. Originally I’m from Dongbei province. I don’t like Kunming.
Have you been up to the Western Mountain park?
No I haven’t, I haven’t gone anywhere. I’ve been thinking I would like to go there, but I don’t have anyone to go with.
You don’t have a boyfriend? Why not?
No. All these years nobody liked me.
Not possible! Don’t you have any friends here in Kunming?
None. I don’t like Kunming. I miss DongBei.
Do you work every day, or do you have a day off? What do you do then?
Every week I have one day off. I watch television. I like movies.
How many times have you gone back to visit your parents?
I haven’t gone. Do you know how much the train costs? It’s too expensive.
Why did you come to Kunming? Don’t you have other opportunities?
(ironic laugh) No, no choice, no opportunity.
In this job, you must meet many men, right?
Yes, lots of men.
Enough, I gave up. I wonder if there are aspects of her story I don’t know, maybe a horrible family situation, but it seemed on the surface that she’s just lost in a victim story, feeling no choices, no appreciation for what she has, and no positive dreams to work on. She’s not typical at all of the general spirit I see on China’s streets, where people are either working purposefully and constructively, or really enjoying the lifestyle that their work and all China’s changes have wrought.
Bits of Kunming
I’m sitting in the 4-star hotel lobby, waiting while Xin has her last Kunming meeting and lunch. I’m watching the world go by while I catch up on a couple days of journaling. Our bags are packed, we’re checked out, and our flight to Dali’s booked for this evening. In a few hours, I’ll have been in China exactly one week.
I remember the Horizon Club floor of the Beijing Shangrila, with its pretty young girls in QiPaos, bringing us drinks and coffee. When I asked our salesman Henry Chen what they likely thought of men like us, he said “Yeah, they’re pretty, huh? That one’s probably 20. She’s from a different world. She can’t imagine being with you, you’re like a god to her, with a lifestyle she can’t even imagine. She would not even consider you a possibility.” China’s changed. The city dweller’s have jobs and cellphones, T-shirts and jeans, televisions and laptops. Westerners are tourist oddities now, not the daydream source of wealth. Oh sure, some women might think preferentially about Western men, but there’s no pressing economic difference any more to my eyes.
I’m sure the countryside is different. I’d like to see it.
Yesterday my restful vacation was disrupted by three very challenging assignments Xin gave me. First, I had to mail her letter to UBC. It needed glue to seal it, stamps, and a mailbox. You think this is easy? Try it in a city where almost nobody speaks English, and I don’t even know the words for “mail”, “post office”, “glue” or “stamp”! I was positive I’d seen a China Post sign a block East of our hotel. Unfortunately, it had completely disappeared. I wandered zigzagged the nearby streets, and wound up at the famous Birds & Flowers Market. It was fascinating: a long street of people selling cute little dogs in ones and twos, hundreds of tropical birds, musical instruments, dolls, the usual tourist trinkets but all for Chinese, no English, no pressure. Fried food stalls beside umbrella stands beside a counter of bike locks and spare tires beside a dog for sale beside another dog beside a rack of ladies’ blouses. I got hungry, but I don’t know how to order anything in Chinese, and the food wasn’t appetizing to me. Ouch, I’m getting a stomach bug, suffering diarrhea, hungry but put off by most food. I wandered looking for something simple… longed for a McDonald’s. Wandered hungrier and hungrier, considered random restaurants and rehearsed my simple Chinese: “I’m hungry, I have money, please help!” but the tension between hunger and embarrassment kept me hungry. Finally I found the bakery we’d seen before, with lots of sandwiches and buns I could simply pick up from the shelves. The lady pushed an orange juice bottle into my hand, and explained it came with the sandwich. 7Y for a filling and delicious lunch. $1. J At last I caved in to ask the English-speaking concierge where I could mail a letter, and he pointed West, “two crossings, then on your left”. Of course I wound up at the Postal Savings Bank first, and had to ask the guard for help, but I finally found the post office, and managed to convey my job by pantomime… though I managed to arrange payment in Chinese.
My second stressful job for the day was to get to the building where Xin’s meeting was, because she’d phoned me to say there was a massage place on the first floor. She was willing to bring me after dinner, perhaps at 8pm, since they’re open til midnight, but I thought I’d be brave. Her instructions on the phone were AnKangLu, in a certain village, with a very long name I didn’t catch for the building, but “you can’t miss it, the only large white building on the street, which is not too long: something something ZhongXin”. Zhongxin means “center”. I had no trouble asking the taxi driver if he knew AnKangLu (Peace Health Street). But he told me it’s one kilometer long, and my description of the building just made him frown! Xin couldn’t answer her cellphone due to her meeting. We drove down the street, looking at all the tall white buildings. The driver explained there are two “centers”, one at each end. His guess was the further one, so I paid him his $1.80 fare and thanked him. There was indeed a massage place off the lobby, where the friendly young man and woman spoke a few dozen words of English. They mimed a full body massage, which I understood to be 40Y. It seemed too good a deal, so I asked (in Chinese) how long it would take; he said 25 minutes. OK, let’s go! I explained my shoulder pain, and he understood. He got to work. This was my first full body massage ever; it was a wonderful experience. He could zero in on where it hurt, he could feel where there was tension, and where I was already relaxed. He could push to the edge of pain, to force muscles to relax, then back off just before I couldn’t take any more. He cracked my neck… but just once each way, and not quite the right place for my pain. Oh well, he couldn’t fix my locked neck, but he sure could give a wonderful massage! I hadn’t realized how the XiShan hike had stiffened my leg muscles! Then I heard a welcome familiar voice, as Xin stopped into the massage office to see me. At last I knew for sure I was in the right building! She couldn’t stay long, and she was going directly to dinner with the group, but she helped arrange that I’d get the full treatment including an additional foot massage. For that, they soaked my feet in hot water with some kind of salt or herbs in it, then the girl washed and dried my feet, and I lay back while she went to work for another 25 minutes. Oil and warm cloths, twisting and pressing and kneading, like the guy, she knew exactly how hard to press, just below my pain threshold. It was fascinating that she found a spot on my right foot only, just behind the big toe mound, tense and resistant and painful, that she worked on for 5 minutes until it relaxed somewhat. I don’t know if it had any special reflexology significance, but it felt wonderful. Then the shock of payment. They asked for 45Y. I was unsure… had they included both? Should I offer more? No, gave them a 100Y bill, and they gave me 55 back. On the door I saw the prices, 20Y and 25Y. They were happy. I walked away.
The third job was to find dinner for myself. I considered room service; I was emotionally exhausted, worried about absorbing too much. I compromised and searched Wikipedia for Kunming restaurants. The English pages listed a few western-style restaurants, explaining they’re for emergency use of westerners who need a rest, just like me. They’re on a street which starts by YunNan University, just across Green Lake. Off I went. The French Café I was looking for didn’t seem to exist, it’s No.70 address didn’t help as no buildings seem to actually show address numbers. But there was a pizza joint with other laowai sitting out front, so I took it. The service was in broken English, and the menu in Italian, but that was close enough for me. Spinach pizza with cold, cold QingDao beer, and both were perfect. Ahhhh…. With a pang of nervousness, I finished the last pages of my last English reading material, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. What will I read now?!!?
Xin got back to the hotel minutes after me, but she had hours of paperwork and travel organizing still to do. I did my TaiChi, listened to Beethoven and Leonard Cohen on my phone MP3, did a little yoga, and finally dropped to bed, exhausted.
Dali Mountain Temple Lunch
Dali is an ancient kingdom of China. Before the Tang Dynasty, around 618-907 AD, Dali was the capital of the Yunan region. The walled city sits in the middle of a large flat plain, about 40km by 4km, between the Erhai lake and the Cangshan mountains. The valley is at 2000m elevation, the 19 peaks alongside it go just over 4000m, with 18 pretty streams dropping between them.
Dali is famous for its embroidery, for its wood carving, for its Kung Fu, and most of all for its marble. Hundreds of craftsmen all over the valley dig it up, cut it with huge saws, carve it, polish it, and sell it. In Chinese, the word for marble is Dali Stone.
Just above old Dali town, about 500m up the mountain, is an old Daoist temple. As part of the government’s program to stimulate tourism in the area, a chairlift was installed up to the temple. The government also decided to build a 10km path at the temple’s elevation, cutting flat across the Cangshan mountains. At the other end is a gondola, and half-way along, a series of waterfalls cut into the canyon between two of the mountains, called the Seven Maidens Pool.
We’re so far south, the mountains have no snow, and the treeline seems to reach above the peaks. The mountainside is steep but thick with pine trees and crowded vegetation of various kinds, dotted with flowers. Our hands brushed the pine needles as we rode the creaky old ski lift up to the temple.
The view was beautiful, but the temple itself a little disappointing. It had the usual restored statues of Buddha’s and various gods, and a few people selling embroidered shirts and trinkets. A few young men hung around the main shrine wearing monks’ costumes, but from their manner you could see they’re a fake part of the tourist attraction. They were very friendly, at least! We walked away over to the right, behind the main buildings.
Just past the washrooms, 3 old ladies appeared dragging huge pine branches out of the forest. I didn’t try but I think I would have struggled to carry them, and these 70+ year old ladies had them on their shoulders! The wood is for firewood, for their stoves. We wandered through and saw one of the open-door, open-window rooms was a kitchen, with another old lady cooking. She let us in to watch, as she prepared 4 or 5 vegetarian dishes in a huge grill-wok, about a meter across, sitting on a brick stove with a simple wood fire underneath. She asked if we’d like to eat some, and we gratefully accepted, thinking and saying that we’d just have a little taste. We waited.
She explained that the group of women work there to help take care of the place, and cook for the monks, who would come about noon, and we’d all eat together. Xin noted her Mandarin was very good, which we learned is because so many tourists come here. The cooking continued, and we sat chatting with her, then with the other ladies who came in. She made bitter mellon, and a delightful ginger tea, and fried potatoes with fresh white beans, and a cabbage soup, and a plate of spicy tofu, and mushrooms. Noon came and went. Yunan operates on slow time.
A younger man showed up with two young boys, around 3 or 4. They played around, and we learned they were family of one of the ladies. The group joked to the one little boy that he’s a “laowai” (foreigner). The boy, Jimmy, got upset… “Wo bushi laowai!” over and over. Apparently his father is Australian. His mother came along a few minutes later and joined us. Finally the monks came in, and everyone sat down to lunch. Wow! It was fantastic! The food was simple but delicious, healthy and tasty. Everyone talked all at once, as we sat on low wooden benches around square tables, in the kitchen. It was extremely simple and informal and friendly. Jimmy insisted several times he was NOT a laowai. His mother explained in perfect English that he wants to be clear and simple about his identity. I remarked on her Australian accent, which she said she doesn’t really like. The conversation continued at high speed, in a total confusing mix of Mandarin, Yunan dialect, and a little sprinkled English.
One of the old ladies remarked on my hairy arms, said it was lucky. She was very talkative throughout the meal. We were like family.
The mother lives in Shanghai, but is here in her home town to help her brother set up a coffee shop on the mountain. Her family name is “Duan”, the largest and most famous name in the area, after an old monk who invented a style of Kungfu the region is famous for. Mrs. Duan’s husband helps run international schools, which recruit students from all over, including Shanghai, to teach English as well as other subjects.
Xin explained her work, and Mrs. Duan suggested she should go see a certain monk just outside town, who runs a home of some kind for abandoned children. We thanked her and then it was time to leave… we didn’t know what a stroke of destiny that had been!
We tried to give the ladies 50Y ($8) as a donation in thanks for the lunch, and they almost refused. They absolutely refused to take that much money, and gave us 40Y back – they said the meal was worth 5Y each. As food, and as an experience, it was richer than most expensive restaurants we’ve visited. We walked off on the 10km path full of joy and satisfaction.
The path itself is a marvel. I wonder how much longer China will have cheap labour so readily at the disposal of centralized authority? How much longer can they create incredible works like this? For the entire 10km, the path is artfully laid down with patterns of carved stone, alternating subtle blue and green, black and white colours, with varied textures and sizes, like wallpaper patterns, but each unique and hand-laid. Two meters wide, the path snakes along the mountainside, cutting through rocks, overhung with trees at some points, rocky overhangs at others, bridging streams. Every kilometer or so is a beautiful pagoda. Gorgeous views of the Erhai valley appear frequently between the trees.
The Gongfu Monk
Sunday morning we checked out of our beautiful courtyard hotel, after another delightful breakfast buffet listening to the Dutch crowd at the table beside us, drinking good coffee, and having banana bread after my zhou (rice porridge with bits of vegetable).
We were off to see the monk. But first we needed a taxi to get there, which meant a bit more of Chinese bargaining culture. Of course, the moment we stepped outside the hotel’s courtyard, a taxi drove up. Xin asked him if he would wait up at the monk’s temple for us, for an hour or so, and he wanted lots of money for it… so she asked about a deal if he took us to the Bai village, and the 3 pagodas… 100Y for the half-day til 3pm. He wanted 150. Xin said “100, OK?” He complained for more. She said 100. 120? 100. 120? 100. 120 please! 100. OK, fine. She always wins.
Here is the style of Chinese bargaining:
1. Decide you want something, and approach the vendor, asking how much.
2. They give a price which naïve people might believe is fixed and decent.
3. Tell them it’s too expensive, and suggest a low price, maybe about half, but you have to know the context, know the going rates.
4. Argue back and forth, politely, and perhaps laughing, but firmly. Some comments might be made about the quality or cost, but usually it’s just about the numbers. You both know you want the item, and they want to sell it. You don’t do this for the sake of it, but with integrity – so it’s bad form not to arrive at a sale… though sometimes it has to happen that price can’t be agreed.
5. Finally the buyer gets firm on a price, very firm. Start walking away if necessary. The vendor accepts.
6. The vendor provides the product or the service.
7. You pay, usually afterwards, even for a full-day service.
8. Even after tough haggling, once the price is agreed, there is no argument or waffling. The service is provided with integrity and quality. The price is the price, as if it were carved in stone. Except sometimes, if they find a reason to haggle again. J
The taxi climbed the mountainside, higher and higher, past marble-cutting shops, a nascent golf course, ruined homes of crumbling brick. Up finally to the edge of the mountain, and a little dirt parking lot beside some old buildings. The driver said this is a Kungfu school! We walked along a dirt track and came to a large hall, where a dozen students were practicing stretches. Every year, several foreigners pay to come study here; there were 4 Caucasians practicing together, and a small group of Chinese guys. The Chinese guy could lay down flat, and have his friends push one of his legs straight back beside his ear. It was relaxed. A 10-year-old boy did the splits.
We walked round to the main building, an old-fashioned Bai-architecture villa, with 4 main rooms arranged in a square, a large open courtyard in the middle, a small courtyard on each of the 4 outside corners. In the main courtyard the monk was sitting watching two men play a board game. He greeted us cautiously when we came up, invited us to sit down a few feet away, and talk. He was a bit stiff and formal. Xin chatted, and over time he relaxed. Reporters come to ask him about his school, and he always refuses them, doesn’t allow cameras or note-taking. But he was happy to talk with Xin, and after a while, invited us up to tea.
We walked through to the northwestern little courtyard, which was full of happy little dogs, and a retarded man who was gardening in front of a rough stone fountain, surrounded by greenery. We climbed the old stone steps, and sat on a balcony, looking over the scattered buildings.
Workmen carved and laid bricks and repaired ceilings; the monk told us he got a government grant to restore the temple, which had been nothing but a ruin when he first came 20 years ago.
While we talked, he went through a long, elaborate process to prepare the tea. 7 tiny cups were scattered on a carved wooden frame full of holes, to a fitted tray below. First he poured boiled water on the cups, and ritually washed them each in another, turning them round and round. This heats the cups to the temperature of the tea. He poured them all out in the frame. From a plastic bag, he pulled a cake of Pu’Er Cha, and broke a few pieces into a tiny teapot, immediately pouring it out into 4 of the cups. Our taxi driver asked a few questions and drank his tea. I kept quiet; I couldn’t understand much of the conversation, but it was fascinating to absorb the atmosphere, to watch the dynamics as Xin talked with him. I asked if he minded I take a photo of him; his body language to me was polite but stiff and a little unfriendly, so I stayed back; he was laughing and friendly with Xin, and I was proud of how she got him to open up.
Over the 20 years, he started taking in orphans, and children abandoned by their divorcing or widowed parents. He teaches them KungFu. Using Buddhist texts, he teaches them to read and write. Everyone at the shool, from the kids to the foreign students, must eat together, and speak the Buddhist prayers, and study.
He doesn’t call it an orphanage, because that carries a stigma. The kids grow up with fighting skills, so they can become bodyguards or security staff. They have the identity of the temple, of the gongfu school, instead of an orphanage. He says some of his kids have run away from orphanages, where they did not get enough to eat.
He doesn’t want government funding. The government would have its own agenda, its constraints, its rules… and he wants to do things differently. He explained it in Daoist terms: going to the government for money would be “You Wei”, the opposite of “Wu Wei” (“doing without doing”). It would be forced. In the same vein, he does not advertise, does not seek out children. They hear about him, and if it’s their fate, they come to him.
The retarded man doing the gardening was an example. He was one of 5 brothers, mercilessly bullied by the others. His mother tried to help, but the family politics prevented her from succeeding. Now he’s here with the monk, happy, able to do something useful, having a peaceful home.
The money from the foreign gongfu students pays the ongoing operation of the temple. The temple grounds are wonderful: an old decrepit ruin, but with obvious heritage, and potential for rebirth. Room by room, some pieces are becoming beautiful again, functional. Lovely wooden carvings adorn the doors of the rooms in use now. A dark little classroom with an old chalkboard has a miscellany of odd Chinese and English books.
A few years ago, makers of a famous gongfu movie built a whole facsimile town as a set for the film; it’s a tourist attraction we didn’t have time to visit. We were happier visiting this real gongfu temple.
The monk wears traditional clothing, cloth shoes, and looks comfortable in them, confident in manner. A young Chinese man comes, prays at the shrine, takes a shaker from a real monk, and gives a contribution to the temple. It is real, unlike the temple above the chair lift. The young man comes to talk with the head monk, who invites him to sit formally at the same benches we started with. He asks about the gongfu school, and is refused. The monk doesn’t want to teach short-term classes; he only wants long term serious visitors or residents, who are dedicated, who are brought there by fate.
Bai Village and Bus to LiJiang
Now we’re on the bus to LiJiang, a modern greyhound style, except the blue-uniformed lady comes round to hand out water bottles to each person who gets on the bus, and to unlock the bathroom door when someone asks; the floor is wood paneled.
We’ve left the Erhai valley, and are climbing the red-earth hills northwards. Southern China has red earth, the poorest for agriculture, but thanks to the climate yields 3 crops of so-so rice per year. Middle China has intermediate yellow earth. The best rice comes just once a year, from the black earth of North East China.
We pass the rice paddies, crescent shapes, layer by layer, climbing the hillsides. Villages with curved roofs of brick are scattered everywhere. Yunan is a few 100km across, full of wooded mountains, but its population is 40million. The countryside is very poor – we remember seeing peasants walk through the Dali market, gaping at all the produce. Now we pass crumbling huts… but surrounded by teeming agriculture: corn, rice, dozens of tiny plots of beans and vegetables.
The hills are scarred by marble and other rock quarries. We’re surrounded by rolling green hills, with taller blue mountains in the background. The highway winds up and down, one lane each side, with a deep stone-walled ditch on each side for the rainwater. Hydroelectric power lines traipse here and there. It’s hot today, 28 degrees, but the bus is comfortably air conditioned – the display claims 20 degrees, but sometimes switches to 22 which I’m closer to believing.
I see peasants working the fields, mostly wearing bright blue. With half of China’s 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities represented by the official threshold of more than 5000, Yunan is the most diverse province of China. Each “nationality” is vigorously promoted, for tourism perhaps. Traditional costumes are encouraged, and each nationality has its own. The Bai nation, the largest in Dali, has numerous formal costumes, beautifully embroidered. The girls wear beautiful large hats, which carry a symbolic meaning. Dali is famous for four symbols: wind, snow, flowers, and the moon. The Bai hats have a white fluffy fringe representing the snow, colourful embroidered flowers across the front, a half-meter frond of white cords hanging down the side to represent the wind, and a crescent shape across the head, to show the moon.
Before we took the bus, our taxi driver took us to the tourist trap of the local Bai village. The best part was wandering around outside the main “demonstration” villa with its terrible ethnic dancing and full-costume tours, no matter how educational they were. The outside village had an active market, where Xin bought a tablecloth and placemats for 1/3 the price of the tourist store. We wandered down narrow “streets” between houses, and snapped photos of the local kids and dogs and homes.
Down the ancient stone walkways, teenagers rode motorcycles. An old woman in traditional costume walked by us, with a sleek cellphone to her ear. Phoenix Suns jerseys sell next to embroidered Chinese blouses. The vendors don’t speak English, but they manage good Mandarin thanks to the northern tourists. But in this market, most of the customers seem to be the locals, buying their jeans and runners (to wear after the work for the tourists is done).
In the demonstration villa, we get our pictures taken a couple times, one in front of the villa’s original owner’s picture, a rich man who made the local tea famous, and donated his villa to the government when his whole family moved to Canada. Calligraphy by his acquaintance Chiang Kai Shek adorns the wall, on one side of his picture, with the calligraphy of the Yunnan Communist leader of the time on the other side.
We sat for a tea-tasting session. The girl in full costume explained each tea in wonderful detail, and they don’t hold back on the quality of the tea! (They better not, for the 50Y they charged for admission!) The first tea was a bitter one, supposedly with a sweet aftertaste, with a white dusting, grown on the hills which are snow-covered in winter, so it’s associated with the snow. The second tea was an utterly delightful light tisane of wild rosebuds. I bought two for gifts. The third tea represents the moon, grown by the lakeside, with alternating flowering plants that give the tea a floral aspect. The tea is mixed with a little ginseng. I bought one box for myself. The fourth tea was a strong herbal concoction of Chinese medicines, for lowering blood pressure and regulating digestion. Not bad tasting.
Before the bus left, we had a quick hour to peruse more of the Dali market, which goes block after block. I bought three traditional style shirts of rough material, for Tai Chi and for relaxing, non-negotiable at $20 for the three. A few stores later, I found a beautiful marble ashtray for a gift. They asked 15Y. I told Xin I don’t even want to bargain, but she said “pianyi yi dianr ma?” and they came back immediately with 10Y. Done.
I’m typing this on the bus; Xin says I’ve been writing for two hours, but I splice in hundreds of gazes at the passing countryside. We’re going through another town now, full of color: concrete bricks being made, beside a plot of rice, beside a gas station (4.86Y/litre), beside traditionally roofed buildings with lovely blue painting on the walls, beside a modern yellow brick home, beside a hovel of rocks, beside a wood-panelled home with lovely carvings on the doorway, beside a profusion of flowers. Modern China is a practical thriving chaos of cutting edge electronics, ancient simple food, traditions stretching back millennia, Karaoke prostitutes, rice paddies and high definition television. We pass a family of 3 on a decrepit bicycle, an Audi luxury car passes us. “Shanwai you shan, renwai you ren.” Beyond every mountain is a (higher) mountain; beyond every person is another (higher/better/luckier/smarter) person.
I’m exhausted. I’ve been away from home 10 days now, and every single day has been a fire hose of impressions to absorb. Every town has a different culture, a different physical style, different foods. My middle-aged brain is striving to speak and read and understand as much Mandarin as possible. The Chinese medicine seems to be curing my intestines, but I suffered a couple really bad days of diarrhea and belly cramps. The jet lag’s finally done, but I go to bed steaming with impressions, and haven’t slept a full night yet. It’s tiring, but exhilarating. Maybe this week I’ll take some down time… but I’m so excited I don’t want to waste a minute of this intense vacation.
Rock music blares at the back of the bus. Rocky metamorphic peaks rise over 1000m from the flat green valley floor we’re driving through. We’re on the edge of the Himalayas, Tibet a little to our Northwest.
Lijiang’s Crescent Moon Hotel
Lijiang sits up against Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (YuLong XueShan), which soars 5500m as a backdrop to the city. Behind it is a 3900m deep gorge called Tiger Leaping. Lijiang has a new city and an old city, like most towns in China. The old city here is a 4 square kilometer maze of cobblestones and two-storey buildings with classic corrugated tile roofs. 25,000 people live here, not counting the thousands of tourists. The town is dotted with courtyard hotels and hostels.
Our taxi tried to drive into the cobblestones, but the lane got narrower and narrower, and he finally gave up. We walked a few blocks, with him helping as luggage-carrier, and more importantly, guide. The 2-3 meter wide “streets” meander, crowded with people and motorbikes and horses and children and dogs. Every few meters is another market stall, or home, or 10-room hotel, or café, or some combination of these.
We walked through an archway into the open courtyard of PanGe’s Crescent Moon Hotel. The lobby is a wide living room open on one side to the rock-laid courtyard, filled with potted plants, beautiful calligraphy, dark wooden pillars, a table for serving tea, and a desk with a computer connected to high-speed internet. As we walked in, PanGe, in shorts and T-shirt, shouted out a welcome as if we were relatives returning home from a journey. After a moment’s conversation, he grabbed keys and ushered us up the wooden staircase, suggesting we shower and rest from our journey – we can check in later! From the top of the stairs, we looked out over another, inner courtyard. The hotel’s dozen or so rooms surround this courtyard, which has a tree, plants, a patio, beautiful patterns of inlaid stones, benches and coffee tables. There’s a feeling of age, of peace, of heritage. Hmm…. Would it have a shower? He opened our door with a sophisticated card-key, and ushered us into a 5-star room. There’s wireless and wired high-speed internet. The bathroom has an impeccable shower, sink, and toilet.
We opened the old wooden-framed windows, with their patterned paper panes, and look out over the chaotically scattered rooftops of Lijiang old town… with red paper lanterns, flowers, trees, arching roof tops, deep brown carved-wood shutters, and cobblestones everywhere.
Whenever we walk down to the courtyard, which is too much a living room to call it a lobby, PanGe offers tea and conversation. In the morning, guests sit with him to have some zhou and cha and coffee, smoke and chat and laugh.
I learned a little about China’s drugstores thanks to Traveler’s Diarrhea. The first couple herbal remedies we bought in Kunming and Dali didn’t seem to help much, so we found another drugstore in the Lijiang old town. By the way, I tried to think of a service or a thing smaller than a breadbox that you can’t buy within 500m of our hotel, and haven’t found such a thing yet! Internet, travel offices, banks, clothing from cheap to elegant, art, handmade leather hats, horse rides, pizza, fine Chinese cuisine, croissants, 100 types of tea… So we found a drugstore, and the girl plunked a box on the counter in response to a quick description of symptoms. Xin says they always simply put the most expensive medicine out first, so she discussed a little more, finally buying two boxes for about $5. One of them is herbal, for slowing down the intestines, the other is an antibiotic, fortunately including one word of English, the name of the drug. I wikipedia’d it and found it’s exactly what western doctors recommend, with exactly the same dosage and duration (3 days of norfloxacin, 400mg twice a day). The interesting thing is that there’s no such thing as “prescriptions” or professional pharmacists here; you can buy any medicine you want straight from the drugstore, and the lightly trained salespeople will diagnose you on the spot and recommend drugs! I’d have been quite skeptical if Wikipedia hadn’t corroborated it… and more importantly… it seems to have worked!
After a day or two eating nothing but zhou, and doing little but read and browse the internet, with a few sorties into the market, I was getting bored. Fortunately, this morning I was well enough for an expedition, and what a wonderful day it was!
We joined two other couples to rent a van & driver, taking us to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. This gorge, likely to be swallowed up by a huge dam project, is touted as a major tourist attraction. Backpackers take 4 days to hike a high mountain trail alongside the gorge. Tour buses go by every minute. The brochures say it’s far higher than the Grand Canyon, from the water to the 5596m mountaintops being 3900 meters. The JinSha river’s almost as large as the Columbia here, and narrows to twenty meters across, with a large rock blocking it there, the legend being that tigers jumped across using that rock. Frankly the gorge and the mountains are just OK – BC’s Fraser River Canyon is much more impressive. The interesting parts of the day were everything else, as usual!
Despite the looming plans to flood the gorge, the government has built an amazing highway through the gorge, cut out of the perpendicular rock face. On our South Side, a 3m wide footpath has similarly been drilled and blasted out of the perpendicular cliffs, 2.6 kilometers long. It’s quite impressive, and in some parts very pretty.
Through the day, we got to know the other two couples, which gave the day a special warmth and meaning. Zhang XiaoJun, 35, owns a 120 person Interior Design company, and ZhangYi (“David Jobs”) is general manager for a 20 person software company, both in Nanjing. XiaoJun was especially friendly, and talked with us all the way there and back in the van. They both have delightful, pretty, young girlfriends who are currently unemployed. Zhangyi’s g/f’s nickname is MeiZi (plum fruit), bubbly and fun. Her full name is Zhou HuaMei. At the first photo opportunity, she jumped forward to get a picture with me, then the other girl did too. The boys were solicitous and obviously very very happy with them. But it was interesting to see MeiZi trying to please “David”, massaging his shoulders, tagging beside him, leaning her head on his shoulder… and the opposite dynamic with Zhang XiaoJun: his girlfriend sat bored in the front of the van while he talked with us in the back; she pouted all day, while he lit her cigarettes, hurried to help her out of the car, and generally spoiled her. In the evening, she pouted in their hotel room, apparently because she thought Zhang was angry at her, so she didn’t want to go for dinner – on hearing this, he rushed to the room and came down 5 minutes later with her, so they could all go eat. J The only time she really looked happy all day was when Xin and I bumped into her in the market in the evening; she was out with MeiZi shopping, and she’d bought herself a lovely new top that she showed off to me flirtatiously, with a huge smile on her face and a bounce in her step. I was fearful of jumping to a stereotype, but shopping seemed to be her element, and it struck me that creating her beauty might be her core identity. I felt sad, for her, and for Zhang, but also ironically for myself… since I’m attracted to those flowery girls, while at the same time I know they couldn’t satisfy me for any length of time. I remember in vivid contrast how Xin made interesting conversation with our van driver, who the girl sat beside in silence for 2 hours, and how Xin got a suspicious Kungfu monk to open up, and every day engages sincerely and meaningfully with new people.
Our last day in Lijiang is upon us. We skipped the glacier ascent and year-round skiing on YuLongXueShan, and hiked up the Elephant Hill outside the Old Town instead. The view of YuLongXueShan from the top was limited by clouds across the peak, but the hike was great exercise in the beating sun. We could finally see Lijiang in context, the Old and New Towns contiguous in a wide tentacled plain, among numerous mountain ranges. The mountains are high, but not very rocky here, and snowless this far south. We’re at the same latitude as the southern tip of Baha or Florida. The southern latitude balances against the high elevation to create a wonderfully comfortable climate.
I’m writing in Lijiang’s airport, as we wait for the flight to XiShuangBanNa. It’s crowded with tourists; I don’t see another Caucasian from where I sit, but there probably are a few (nope, I searched, not one). Our driver, same guy as yesterday by prearrangement, told us there are more foreigners every year, and he could make 50,000 more per year if he spoke English (he could charge more for his sightseeing car hiring). He’s Naxi, the dominant ethnic group here, an interesting people with matriarchical heritage, a Tibetan-influenced nature-worshipping religion, the world’s last remaining active pictographic language, and interesting costumes. He says his wife farms their rather large plot by herself while he drives taxi. As an ethnic minority group, they’re allowed two children instead of one, and he has two girls, both in school. He’ll encourage them to learn English.
XiShuangBanNa Day One
I saw another white man on the street, as our taxi neared the hotel on our second day here. It was almost a shock. Nobody at our hotel speaks more English than “hello”; practically all the guests besides myself are Han Chinese tourists. We toured the largest botanical garden and research facility in China, and I got stared at a lot, even heard a group of Chinese men saying to each other “Hey, look, a foreigner!”
It was an extremely full day, as our taxi driver tried mercilessly to drop us at a dozen places where he gets commission for us buying stuff, beyond the standard 150Y for the day of driving. It was a battle all day, but we won. Maybe he got a commission on the 5Y we spent on a fresh pineapple. J We threatened not to bother with the two “performances” he brought us to, which led to 30% discounts on them… and they were pretty good. The morning show was a panorama of the Dai nationality’s cultural celebrations, performed on a novel stage: an entire man-made lake, with dancers on various boats and floats, as well as on the main stage in front of us. It became participatory, as they dragged us front-seat visitors up to pretend we’re royalty, sitting in sedan chairs, sitting in dragon boats for a spin around the lake, and finally a mock race back to the stage. We joined in some of the dancing too.
We spent most of the afternoon strolling around the Botanical Park. It was supposed to be a one-hour cart tour, or a two-hour guided walk, but as usual we declined and headed off with a map by ourselves! It rained here and there, but it’s so warm that the rain is gentle and comfortable, and we keep an umbrella for both the rain and the sun anyway. For 3 hours we wandered around thousands of tropical plant species, a collection of the national trees and flowers of countries round the world, exotic flowers, and even a collection of many many many varieties of palm tree.
For a break, we looked for lunch at the ever-present tourist market by the parking lot. We found a man lounging by a pile of coconuts with a large knife, and bargained him down to 6Y ($1) for a big one. In casual style, he hacked an end off, and gave it to us with straws, to drink the milk first. Xin found some cooked veggies and yummy cold black rice pudding, and for dessert, the man hacked the coconut in half, and we scooped out the fruit with flimsy little plastic spoons. It was soooooo different from the coconuts I’ve bought in Vancouver, which you need a knife to carve out. Here, the fruit is like a creamy pudding, sweet and light.
From our map of the park, we got our driver to bring us to the other side, where a natural rainforest has had a path carved into it. Not many people seem to go there, as it was deserted when we came, and the path hardly disturbed. We walked for an hour through dense jungle, reading signs in Chinese and rough English explaining the vegetation. Various research points are funded by the World Bank and similar organizations; the park may be a tourist destination, but they squeeze as many values out of it as they can, from fruit market to Chinese medicine store to scientific research to national pride symbol.
We had to order the driver bluntly to turn around, on our way into town, as he tried to bring us to the jade marketplace, though we had just an hour left to eat dinner before the evening show. He complained to Xin (in Chinese; he didn’t speak any English) that she wasn’t “cooperating”. She got a little angry and bit his head off. J That got us the further discount on the evening dance performance. We were so happy to be rid of him after that.
The best parts of the day were wandering away from the crowds, eating incredibly sweet fresh pineapple, watching liquid white rubber ooze out of a tree, watching the smiling man slice up a coconut with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, spending an hour deep in the rainforest, and drinking a perfect margarita at “California Sunshine”, watching the city bicycle by.
The Golden Banna Hotel
I’m looking out my window at the coconut trees. There’s a sign underneath, warning of falling coconuts, with a cartoon indicating one hitting a stick man on the head.
Each of our hotels has been an interesting experience. While PanGe’s Crescent Moon in Lijiang is our heartfelt favorite for its combination of homespun charm and luxurious elegance, the Golden Banana is so silly we have to choose between laughing and complaining.
The staff are endearingly friendly, trying so hard to be helpful and provide great service. They are very nice people working in a ridiculous hangover from state-owned bureaucracy. As Xin says, the “hardware” is great, as this place has a gigantic impressive lobby worthy of a 5-star, and a huge lawn dotted with bungalows and a pool and manicured grass… but the management is, um… funny. A few snippets:
· They stock the bathrooms with tiny half-rolls of toilet paper, exactly one each. We call down to the lobby once a day or so to ask them to supply more, which they rush assiduously to do, bringing us another tiny half-roll. Some bureaucrat somewhere is writing reports about how he saved the hotel money on toilet paper. One of the girls broke the rules and brought us TWO tiny half-rolls today.
· We’re asked at check-in whether we want Chinese or Western breakfast; we said Chinese of course and received our coupons. We went to the Chinese restaurant the next morning for the buffet; it was awful. The zhou was thin and tasteless, as was nearly everything else. Since I’m white, they brought me a cup of coffee, which was awful too. So the next day, we asked at the door where the Western breakfast was, and were told it was in the same restaurant. We didn’t sit at the one table by the window marked “reserved for foreign guests”, but they asked us anyway if we’d like Chinese or Western. Xin went for the Chinese buffet again, and I was told they’d bring me mine. There was no menu. A server nervously laid out a tablecloth, a plate, and cutlery, hesitating about where to put the butter knife (there is no butter anyway). I was leery. Seconds later, the most deliciously perfect sunny-side up pair of eggs arrived… and delicious bread with jam, and fresh watermelon, and a decent bottomless cup of coffee. Three servers hovered anxiously around, refilling my coffee cup any time it got near half empty. They asked, apologetically in Chinese, if it was alright, and if I wanted anything else. I felt as if they’d just made their very first Western Breakfast, and were awaiting judgement on their graduation exercise! It was endearing, and I tried to convey how excellent it truly was. Meanwhile 5 girls continuously maintained the dreadful Chinese buffet without apology.
· Apparently due to our building sitting far at the back of the lawn, far from the central block, our shower does not emit hot water by default. Some time before showering, the helpful hosts of our little 10-room building say, it helps to call the central service number (123) and ask them to add hot water. Every time we do this, within a minute the water magically gets hot… and someone stops by the room to ask if it’s working now.
· Attached to the hotel is California Sunshine, a shiny little bit of English. And I do mean a bit; delightfully nobody speaks English, and no Caucasians seem to visit. There’s a terrific Chinese buffet dinner for 10Y, and locals spend hours playing cards at the tables. In the evening they serve delicious cocktails.
· A girl brought our laundry back this evening. This morning, it took two girls to collect it from us; they carefully spent 10 minutes in our room counting and checking each item against our list, and confirming that a blouse was Xin’s and not mine, although men’s and ladies’ shirts are the same price. On return, the girl asked us to pay cash for the laundry to her; Xin refused and the poor girl used her cellphone to call the lobby. It seemed we might be the first guests to use the laundry facilities, or at least the first to ask that it be put against our bill. They’re still stressed out about it, asking us to come pay at the lobby. J
· The air conditioning unit works very well, except that it shuts off automatically in the middle of the night, once, so we have a nightly routine where I wake up baking, and turn it back on.
· There is a neat little minibar under the television. It’s stocked with: a mineral water, a coke, a beer, and a Red Bull. The fridge is a HaiEr, a big brand in China which will never sell in the West… because they have a “homo-innocent” logo of two bathing suit boys hugging each other. J It probably works perfectly well, but I won’t confirm it, because it’s turned off and the drinks are room temperature.
· The button marked “door bell” turns on the do-not-disturb light outside the door.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Wild Elephant Valley
Our activity for Saturday was to tour the famous Wild Elephant Valley (YeXiangGu), but we didn’t want another 150Y pushy tour guide, so we hopped in a taxi outside the hotel and asked them to take us to the bus station; that cost 5Y, the standard minimum fare in this city. There we bought tickets for 12Y each, and learned that the bus going by YeXiangGu runs on the half hour. They told us a return bus is also every half hour, but “less frequently” after about 5pm. No problem since it was only just after 11am and we figured it for a 2-hour visit. Hah. J
The bus was delightful. It had 16 seats, most of them already full when we boarded at 11:10. Also, the aisles were full of plastic bags full of stuff, dirty luggage, somebody’s large plastic bowls full of purchases, and a 40kg bag of chicken fee stamped ISO 9001. We got seats at the back, beside a couple who snoozed the whole hour, and a lady holding her sleeping baby. We left 10 minutes early, when the bus was full. Just outside town, we passed people waiting for the bus, the driver yelling out that we were full.
Here is how traffic works on the usual winding single-lane-each-way roads of rural China. Well, actually this is how it works on every road, from dirt tracks to 8-lane Beijing ring roads. You catch up to the slower user in front of you (there always is one, whether a bicycle or a manure truck or a slow bus, or a pedestrian, or, as we encountered, a large pig with its baby). You swing to the left to see if there are cars approaching; you don’t need to signal; if vehicles are approaching, you just swing back. It doesn’t matter if there’s a curve in the road; that’s handled by other protocols and the fact that nobody can drive all that fast anyway. If nothing is approaching from the other direction, start passing. Honk your horn continuously while passing; this is not rude, in fact it’s a friendly indication to the people you’re passing, and to any oncoming traffic. If something appears in the other direction, whoever is ahead at that moment gets the left lane, and the other one (passer or passee) slips back a bit. Only in the rudest cut-offs does a new horn blast at this point actually indicate anger. There are no lane markings, except on the fanciest 4-lane highways. Whatever fits, fits, from school children walking to three-wheeled farm tractors to dump trucks.
We stopped for gas, and two men waiting at the gas station convinced the bus driver to let them on. He found two wicker stools stowed somewhere among the baggage in the aisles, and set them up in the central aisle for the two guys to sit on.
Finally we reached the Wild Elephant Valley parking lot; we were the only people getting off there – most tourists arrive by tour bus, or expensive taxi rides, or driving themselves.
This national park is wonderfully designed, easily worth the 50Y ticket price, but our day was not all milk and honey. We arrived shortly before one of the Elephant Shows.
The air was hot, the jungle pressing in from the hills on all sides. Tourists streamed into the exhibition area where four elephants stood patiently with their young men in uniform. Kids climbed up to pose for paid photos sitting on top of the elephants. The animals were gentle and docile, putting out their trunks for the humans to pose beside. The trainers wouldn’t let me approach without paying for the photo, so I stood two meters away and tried to just hang out with the giant. He looked at me calmly, waving his trunk toward me. The trainers were firm but quite kind to the giants, I guess they couldn’t succeed without it.
Xin and I found a pretty good seat, in the second row of tables surrounding the parade ground. Busy families milled about, getting photos, buying drinks and snacks, chatting in anticipation of the show. Two women were arguing about ownership of the table in front of us; apparently one of them had left some items to claim the table, and the other family had sat down, pushing the items aside, or something like that. The argument slowly escalated. Husbands got involved, while a 12-year-old girl looked on. The voices became more strident, the language harsher. The two families began yelling at each other about history and possession of the choice front-row table. Then suddenly one woman reached out and slapped the other woman’s face; within seconds there was a full screaming fight, knocking over tables, with the “adults” from both families scratching and pushing. We jumped back as members crashed against our table. Half a dozen security guards came over, but all were young twentysomethings without a leadership bone among them; they milled about wondering what to do, while flares continued. The little girl wailed at the violence and tension. One woman collapsed on a chair in front of us in a classic panic attack; her kinswoman tried to push water on her, meanwhile screaming at the other family continuously, increasing the stress. Xin gently tried to pat her shoulder and insert some calm energy, but it was little use and we stepped back. The little girl kept crying, half-ignored by her parents. After an awkward long stretch of bitterness, a gestalt finally pushed both families out of the arena. The onlookers switched attention to the “animals”.
The show began with introductions of the four elephants, who bowed and did some astonishing acrobatics for such giants. The youngest, a 7-year-old, stood on his back legs, and then his front legs. All four walked round the arena, probing their trunks gently toward the humans. For people who pay 10Y, the trainers give the elephants a plastic bag of bananas, which they use their trunks to give to the people, who then feed back the bananas.
I was prepared for exploitation of the elephants. I knew going in that I’d feel more sad than impressed by the show. I thought I could just sit and appreciate the intelligence and beauty of the elephants. I was nervous that the trainers would be physically cruel to them in some way. But I wasn’t ready, despite my emotional preparation, for the pathos of the ironic chasm between the human and elephant behavior. The screaming violence of the human families over a petty seat at the show kept running through my mind, as I watched the majestic elephants playing petty games for the applauding people. I started to cry. Xin asked if we should go, but I shook my head; I wanted to spend as much time with the elephants as I could, despite the degradation. But a few minutes later, I just couldn’t take it any more, and stumbled away from the arena. I felt like the humans were the animals, I was ashamed, and I burst into tears so strong I fell to my knees in the grass.
The park has many bittersweet exhibitions. Five-meter snakes sit on tourists shoulders for photo ops, as do some tiny black bears, and a few little monkeys. The monkeys looked as playful and happy as their laughing girl trainers, so I paid the 10Y for one to clamber around my hat. A butterfly pen is full of exotic species, and so is a net-covered bird arena. A human stage had a similar show, where a recently primitive tribe puts on a dance performance, while their pretty girls sell massages to the crowd eating lunch in front of the stage. The men dressed in loin cloths mime a primitive hunt for a tiger. Of all the dances we saw in Yunnan, this was the strongest, the best acted, the most impressive. But it affected Xin somewhat the same as the elephant show affected me, and we left with painful emotions.
I don’t hate the Wild Elephant park, because it does some good work, but my feelings were strongly mixed. Fortunately we rode the two-kilometer gondola over the jungle, and saw a small family of elephants munching vegetation on a hillside. They might be tempted to the gondola path by careful planting, but at least they are relatively wild and free in a huge natural conservation area.
Rather than ride the gondola back, we had a lovely and lonely walk back along the jungle floor. The path was mostly woven bamboo, noisy in a way Xin deduced is intentional to keep the elephants aware of our approach. Several points have “elephant crossings”, and many signs warn humans not to make loud sounds, and that wild elephants might appear suddenly on the path. We didn’t see any, but it was thrilling to share their space. We heard a cacophony of human shrieks as tour groups rode on swings and took picture of each other.
We finally walked out of the park, brimming with mixed emotions.
We faced yet another adventure, however!
The girls near the gate didn’t know about bus schedules, but thought the last one had gone. It was just past 5pm already, and we weren’t sure! A few minutes waiting near the bus stop just made us nervous, as tour buses pulled out of the rapidly emptying parking lot. We went down to see if any tour bus might be willing to give us a pair of seats into town. There was only one bus left! We waited nervously for the tour guide to arrive. She came and thankfully she was a very pleasant woman, although she seemed unsure what to do. The driver was amenable, but left it up to her. After hesitating a moment, she agreed, just asking us to sit at the back of the bus. We climbed in gratefully, and she announced our hitch-hiking agenda, welcoming us aboard. Curious eyes followed us down the aisle. A little family on the back row shifted a bit to let us sit between them. The man had a few words with me before falling asleep against the window; the lady had a pleasant conversation the whole way with Xin while her daughter fell asleep on her lap. They’re vacationing from ShanDong for 8 days in Yunnan, and were pretty tired from arriving by plane the night before at 1am. So Xin and I were quite sympathetic when the bus arrived at the same Jade Market we’d been nearly coerced to visit the evening before! J
This time, though, we were more than happy to pop into the market. The first thing I saw was a set of simple brown jade bracelets which looked warm and graceful; they weren’t terribly expensive! We wandered around looking at all the jewelry with mounting costs toward the exclusive rooms at the back. I asked Xin if I could buy her that first bracelet and she smiled. It looks terrific on her wrist, now as we fly to Shanghai.
· Building after Building after Building after Building after Building
· Kunshan suburb 100km of factory after factory after dormitory after factory
· 2600 construction sites
· 100 subway stations under construction
· 25 minute wait for taxi outside Shangrila hotel, over an hour at the airport
· hot muggy pouring foggy hot
· beer from 6Y to 68Y depending where you buy it
· tea at the Crowne Plaza 55Y, across the street in Chinese restaurant, free
· pretty girl massage under the neon, 188Y, blind man’s 90-minute massage, 85Y
· white men in business suits by Starbucks, none a block away in Chinese slum
· “Hello, hello!” pressure salesmen poke your arm and follow you several meters
· sterile hotels and office buildings in Pudong, where they escape to Puxi for fun
· taxi drivers lounging outside the mall refusing fares less than 80Y
· historic Bund riverfront walk overrun by aggressive cheap tourist vendors
· unfriendly people, especially compared with Beijing and Yunnan
· 5-layer freeway interchanges
· Crumbling and soaring, today’s Manhatten but bigger and bolder
· Sex for sale everywhere along with too many other things
· Much more fashion and sexiness, much less beauty, than the rest of China
· Push push push
· Ugly while architecturally beautiful