Tuesday, June 28, 2005

A Day in Yangshuo

It's hot, humid, tropical. Something about this kind of weather makes me feel as if I am on a vacation. And we have set a pace that suggests that we are. Not to mention, we are in one of China's touristy towns, where everyone in town is on vacation. It's not a town of locals, except those working the tourism industry. The scenery is amazing, with limestone pinnacles like a scene from Dr. Seuss' imagination.

Everything sweats in the heat, even hot beverages. A subtle smell of mildew hangs in the air throughout town... the whole place cries out against the heat and humidity. Each day, the skies open up and pour water -- it's the rainy season in China. But many enjoy the daily shower, although its quenching nature disappears as quickly as the rains come on. Afterwards, the temperature seems to soar and the humidity becomes even more devastating than before.

Yangshuo, being the tourist attraction it is, is full of souvenir stalls (the same items sold as throughout the rest of China), and restaurants serving Western style fare. There is really nothing much to do in Yangshuo, the town itself... but the surrounding countryside and villages make up for it.

Yesterday we rented bikes and rode an hour into the scenic flatland surrounding town. Beyond the green rice paddies and farms, giant connicle-shaped mountains of limestone jut into the sky. It's the kind of landscape that makes you stop and stare and fall into a certain kind of reverie reserved for vacations far from home. Our destination was the Moon Hill village, named for the Moon Hill mountain, which has an arch, shaped like a crescent moon, overlooking a large swath of mountains and land below. In the village, there is a cave and we were talked into visiting it by a local woman who secured tickets for us at half price. Not having a predilection for spelunking, a product of claustrophobia, it was not necessarily the way I wanted to spend the rest of my afternoon... but at half price, it was hard to resist and we had nothing better to do... so into the cave we went.

Anna, the impromptu tour guide who got us the half price ticket, guaranteed me there would be no crawling, tight spaces, and all the other horrors awaiting a claustrophobe in a cave. But I should have known better -- some times English is not understood completely and you are likely to get the answer you want to hear because there is no better way for them to answer you. There is not a command of language to do so.

The cave was mercifully lit with colored lights, which not only gave it a certain sort of dance club atmosphere, but it also made it a little less 'cave like'. At first we had to duck through some spaces with low ceilings. It's a good thing we were given helmets to wear. I hit my head on every single overhang. There were places we had to crawl but because of the pools of water on the ground, we did more of a squatted duck walk -- watching Benjamin do this was enough to make me forget the imminent panic attack I was worried about. We waded through knee-deep water and hauled ourselves over slippery cave walls with ropes. All while trying to stay relatively dry and mud-free (we only have a certain, limited number of clothes and getting something dirty can be disastrous depending on how close it is to laundry day).

I was glad to see the light of day again, when we left the cave. I appreciated the open sky and uncomfortable seat of my bike all the more. We rode home in the downpour of rain without a care -- why bother worrying about getting wet when there is no place we need to be, no schedule to keep. By the time we got back to Yangshuo, the sun was shining again. The rain on hold until the following day.

Ready Made

Velveteen terraces, like giant emerald stair steps, carve the mountain sides; misty curls of fog coil around the tops of hills and mountains, like a mink stole on the shoulders of a graceful old woman; clusters of homes with tiled roof tops nestle in the sanctuary of valleys; fields of corn and rice paint the countryside green; the undulating patchwork of farming plots engages the eye as the bus winds its way on the side of a mountain, from here to there. For me, the highlight of journeying through China is in the scenery from the rain lashed windows of the bus or train... and from the top of a moody mountain peak after a day's hike...

The landscapes of China hold immense beauty. Such a contrast to the ugliness of the cities with their white tiled buildings, streaked with grime. China must be an architect's nightmare. The new buildings make me wince, but luckily, most cities have an 'old town' with historic buildings and homes, shops and culture. They are the pleasantries of a Chinese city. And many of these places are packed with tourists, most of them Chinese, and so these towns have become more of a tourist attraction than a town in and of itself, with rows of souvenir shops and restaurants, and packs of tour groups led by guides holding a little colored flag in the air to keep their flock on track.

Chinese tourism is strange in its way. Everything is packaged up and polished into the kind of scene one might find in a snow globe... the "ideal" of a place... except it's no longer the place anymore. This may appeal to Chinese tourists, who seem to prefer visiting a place from the seat of a bus, wearing matching caps, following flags. They'll readily admit that they don't like to actually walk between sites of interest. They find it humorous that we do.

Tourist attractions are like caricatures. They are premeditated, as if the attraction is a movie set of the attraction. For this reason, they are nice... but many times, I don't want them to be nice or overly comfortable. I want them to be rough and raw, natural. I want the reward to come with a challenge -- it's more of a reward that way. I don't want a building constructed over and around it. When it comes to entire towns, I don't want the Disney Land version of the place. I want authenticity.

At first it was hard to place my finger on the 'thing' that is Chinese tourism. Why is it different? Every tourist attraction, by its very nature, has some touristy infrastructure surrounding it, all over the world. But here, it's taken to an extreme degree. It's the thing that makes Fisherman's Wharf hokey, not the real San Francisco. It's the thing that makes theme parks themed. It's the thing that comes from trying too hard to BE something. And for many people, that's OK. And for me, it's been alright... there are always ways to find the genuine spirit of a place... a bike ride to a village, a hike over mountians.

Throughout history, the Chinese have had a tendancy to make things the way they want them to be, despite the reality of it. There's a current plan in place, in Beijing, for the city to have 100% sunny days. If that's not a tourist attraction, I don't know what is.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Ready, Aim, Fire! Part 2

It must have been the second beer that inspired me to pee on the cockroach. It was in the toilet, the porcelain squat kind of toilet, much better than those trough-style shitters. There is something about the porcelain that makes them familiar. My aim is bad enough, so I don't know why I even attempted it. But as I said, I had a few beers and good ideas are never born from drink.

As soon as I took my first shot, the inevitable result -- that the roach would run for cover -- sent it scurrying towards my left foot. this resulted in a tango of sorts (but faster and less morbid) between the roach and my feet and the streem of urine which was now out of control. The roach made it out alive and I left the toilet with a wet foot, the right one of course.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Panty Raid

My underwear look like they've been beaten over a rock -- oh wait, they were... back in India. That's how the laundry gets done... or beaten. They are starting to resemble something seen worn in a old-western-tough-mother-f'er-leather bar, the kind of place where fringes are fashionable.

I had a choice to make: either trim off the fringe (aka strings, loose threads) or sew sequins on them and buy a cowboy hat. I decided to trim them -- I don't look good in hats. Benjamin caught me doing this once when he got out of the shower. He laughed. I told him it made me feel better, putting my underwear on without getting my toes wound up in all the loose strings. It also made me feel like maybe my underwear will last a little bit longer than they actually will.

It's not that I'm cheap, but I'm not really keen on buying underwear in these Asian countries we're traveling. I know the brand that works well for me, the size, and all the important particulars -- meaning, I know which underwear won't give me wedgies (Jockey bikinis, if you must know). But most importantly, it's tough finding things that fit in the East. Asians are tiny!

Today we found a Walmart, right here in Kunming. We went there to pick up a few things -- the fact that they probably sold underwear never entered my mind until we walked by the underwear aisle. Benjamin asked if I should pick up a few pairs and although I do need some replacements, I was hesitant at first. The prospect of looking for clothing that will fit, when you are certain it will not, is a bit of an exercise in defeat. And defeat is never fun. But the image of my sad, mangled undies came to mind; I saw them up on the clothes line, all naked elastic and fringe, and decided that if there was ever a time and place to buy new underwear, now and Walmart was it. Otherwise I might find myself purchasing granny panties from a street vendor in Vietnam next month (that's the ETD, or estimated time of destruction, I've assigned to my undies).

There are certain qualifications that must be met, where my underwear are concerned... besides fitting, of course. For one, they must be plain and solid in color. I don't want the image of a cartoon character plastered across my ass... especially since bright colors will most likely show through my khaki pants. No one will take me seriously with Winnie the Pooh on my butt. While that might be the appropriate place for a bear with 'Pooh' in his name to live, I want nothing to do with it. That requirement cancelled out the entirety of aisle 1 in this Walmart, leaving me with aisles 2 and 3. I might point out now that I was, indeed, in the adult underwear section. Asian adults seem to love kiddie stuff...

Aisle 3 was the most promising. There were no cartoon characters and no flowerey prints, stripes, and polka dots. The problem here was the sizing. The XL undies looked to be the size of a shower cap and if I was going to go that route, I might as well cut 2 holes in a shower cap and call it 'done'. Sure they might make a funny crinkling noise when I walk, but things in Asia are loud. Most likely, no one would even notice. Plus they would be water proof, but I'm too young to be concerned about water proof underwear. I'll recycle this idea when I hit my elderly years...

Needless to say, I left the Walmart without new underwear. I brought some alligator clips and safety pins with me on this trip... if worse comes to worse and the elastic on my current undies snaps, I'll just fix it, McGyver style, and maybe... just maybe, I'll have one of those infamous Vietnamese tailors alter the granny underwear I'll have to buy on the street.

Vietnamese tailors are like Xerox machines from what I've heard... they're good at 'copying' clothes. You bring them a shirt or a pair of pants and presto, you get the same thing back, only newer and less expensive than the original item. I'm pretty sure no one has brought them a pair of underwear, though, and with the condition mine are in, I don't think I'd want the tailors to 'copy' them. It would be an easy job for those tailors, for sure... they could just round up some fragments of fabric, string, and a worn piece of elastic from the last decade and hand them over to me in a ball.

The other problem is replacing bras while on the road. Here in Asia, they're all tiny and padded. I suppose I could buy the biggest bra they have and rip out the padding... maybe use it for a pillow since the pillows here are also tiny but, unfortunatley, not as well padded as the bras... I could probably manage with just the pading from one cup for my pillow; I'd be nice and give Benjamin the rest (did I mention the bras are REALLY padded?).

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Kung Fu School Dropouts

The following should be sung to the tune of 'Beauty School Dropout' from the movie 'Grease'.

Kung Fu school dropouts, nobody told you it would be clean
Kung Fu school dropouts, what on earth were you think-ing?
If you want great pain and suffering, and the smell of sweat and funk...
Why not check yourself into a monastery and work out with some monks!!

--End of Song--

There have been several occasions, on this trip, when I've gotten into a situation that had me asking myself if I shouldn't have thought it thorough a bit more before getting myself into the situation in the first place. In fact, I can think of fewer times in the whole of my life that I've asked myself, literally, "What the hell were you thinking (or not thinking)? You should have thought this thing through before getting yourself into this pickle, my dear girl."

These were my thoughts as I sat in the practice area on 'day 3' at a Buddhist Kung Fu monastery, a rustic place if you're a poet, or a primitive place if you're a realist. It's located in the mountains on the outskirts of Dali, some 20 minutes from the center of town. It's not in the guidebooks... it's the kind of place people know about from word of mouth. I learned of the temple, which offers one week training in Kung Fu by real Kung Fu monks, and accommodation plus meals, from a girl I met on the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail. She'd just come from there and suggested it upon hearing of our failed attempt to study Kung Fu (one day only) at Shaolin Si, which was way too touristic for our tastes. This place, she told me, was authentic. A monastery trapped in time, without electricity or hot water, a true experience of monastic life.

Day One: Notes from journal

I'm starting to wonder if choosing to check myself into a monastery for one week while undergoing the trials of PMS was a good idea. There's an American here, who has been here before, who told us that, "...it's a good environment to study Kung Fu -- and I've chosen my words carefully." What did he mean by that? Is it that I'll suffer because my desire to be here stems more from the 'coolness factor' or 'good writing material quotient' of staying in a monastery for one week than from a true, passionate desire to learn Kung Fu? While I do want to learn some Kung Fu, it's more of a passing interest than a dedication. I just want to... kind of... try it out. Maybe I shouldn't be here -- the French guy who showed up just now says none of us will probably be able to bend over to touch our knees tomorrow, that's what he's heard, anyway.

So far, I'm the only girl here and even if there were others, I would still, most likely, be the only one with PMS. How will I react to orders of exercise with that nasty beast riding my back? The French guy showed up with a Brazilian who only came to take a look. He's not staying because he has 'issues with authority'. He said this to knowing smiles around the group of guys. But his comment got me thinking about my personal situation. I didn't even bring any chocolate with me.

Right now, I'm sitting in a courtyard with a zillion flies swarming around me. We've been sitting here for almost 3 hours since we arrived... we were shown these benches and given tea, but that's it. No one has told us what to do or what's going on... hell, no one even speaks English and none of us speaks Chinese. Maybe we should just go now, before it's too late, if only there was a way to go... a cab brought us here, up a remote road in the mountains... I'm not even sure how one goes about leaving.

Finally, the boys have been taken to their rooms, but I am still sitting here with my bag, by myself. I'm trying not to feel sorry for myself -- I hate being ignored. This is the PMS talking, I know... but still. Here I am, again, the lone female in the midst of males. It's now been about 4 hours since we arrived and I'm getting comfortable, strangely, on this bench. Wait. The dinner bell has been rung. A change of scenery is in my near future! Hurray! Now, what to do with my backpack?

We just had dinner, good vegetarian food. We cannot eat until the master, or 'Shifu' starts. Everyone says something that sounds like, "Ah mit tofu," before and after the meal. The American guy, his name is Chris, told us it means, 'Buddha'. He informed us that this monastery practices 'Pureland Buddhism' and saying the Buddha's name is a ritual at meals and throughout the day, as greetings and such. I'm not sure why... something to do with getting 'points' so to speak. We've been told we must eat everything in or bowl or we can't leave the table. One guy in our group, an Israeli, had 5 grains of rice in his bowl and was told to finish it. Benjamin read on the internet that one guy who was here in the past was made to eat food he dropped on the floor.

At the end of the meal, Chris told us that our bowls and chopsticks were now ours for the week -- that we should take them with us to our rooms (I finally now have one) and bring them to the dining hall for each meal. We're lucky he's around since no one else is telling us of all these rules.

Just got back from an orientation meeting of sorts... we were called into a dark room (it's now evening and there's no electricity... things are being conducted over the flames of candles at this point). We were given a laminated sheet of rules printed in English to read while a few people from the monastery recorded our passport info and took our fees (300 Y for one week). The first rule states, "This is not a hotel..." and goes on to explain that it's a working monastery and we are here to study martial arts, and work hard for 5 hours a day, etc... The rest of the rules, from what I can remember, are as follows:

- must say 'Ah mit tofu' before meals, when done eating
- must not eat before the Shifu eats
- bring bowls and chopsticks to each meal, store in room at other times
- no smoking, drinking, playing cards
- keep garbage in room and take it with you when you leave
- couples sleep in separate rooms and should have no physical contact
- stay in temple grounds at night
- no sandals at night b/c of poisonous snakes

There are others, but I can't remember them all...

The daily schedule was also listed:

6:30 am = morning exercise
8:00 am = breakfast
9:00 am = training (3 hours)
12:00 pm = lunch
Free time until 4 pm
4:00 pm = training (2 hours)
6:00 pm = dinner
Free time until bed time

The accommodation is pretty basic. I had to crawl up a super steep flight of steps and almost fell over backwards with my pack on. On closer look, I noticed that the steps are not actually right angles -- they're cantilevered out, at 60 degree angles, which is why they are so damn steep. I can't walk up them without hitting my shins on their edges. My room is dark now -- when I first came in with flashlight in hand (I was lucky to have it in my pocket), I was startled by a butterfly pattern on one of the 2 twin beds... at first it looked like a giant black spider. Luckily that was not the bed I'd chosen when I was first shown to my room. Even though it was not a spider, I would still feel creepy sleeping in that bed. I chose the cleaner of the two beds, which were both pretty ragged looking. Not sure when the last time the bedding was changed. Overall, my first impressions of the monastery is that it's a bit run down... but I can get used to that. It's nice, in a 'Little House on the Prarie' sort of way.

As I write this by the light of candle, I feel like I've gone back in time and knowing that I'll be getting up for the 6:30 exercise session, I feel like I'm operating on an 'old west miner's' schedule. My only concern, at this point, is the lack of drinking water... there is water, but it's boiled water. No bottled water for sale here and we only brought a couple of bottles with us. I can't imagine working out with only hot water to guzzle for rehydration.

Actually, I do have another concern... having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night since my flashlight just broke and the bathrooms are a few minute's walk from the main compound... a good thing they are far away, too, as they smell. Seems like they must have been cleaned the last time the sheets were changed... and they are trough style, so it's pretty clear from the sight of things piling up that they won't be cleaned during my stay here.

The monks have stopped chanting, a nice evening lullaby... It's time for bed. I look forward to tomorrow, and also fear the physical rigors of training...

Day Two: Notes from Journal

I didn't sleep very well last night as I did wake up having to go to the bathroom and had to hold it until dawn for lack of a flashlight. I determined that walking out into the rainy darkness with a candle was just asking for trouble. Anyway, it would be hard to hold as I squatted over the trough, trying not to pee on my foot. Plus the possibility of poisonous snakes had me worried, but Benjamin says there's no way snakes would be out at night and in the cool, rainy weather.

I guess the 6:30 a.m. exercise session was 'cancelled' because of the rain, although no one said so. It just didn't happen, so I assume it was. Apparently the 6:30 slot is for walking to a river with the monks and coming back carrying a rock on your head. I'm glad it's raining. We hung around drinking tea: me, Benjamin, and our Israeli friend, Avi, until it was time for breakfast. We had steamed pork buns, which were yummy.

At 9:00 we headed out to the training area, which is actually a temple lined with Buddha statues. Chris told us he's been practicing his Kung Fu here in the past when pilgrims have shown up to light incense and say prayers. We did some stretching and massaged each other to get our muscles warmed up. One of the monks tried to pair me up with another guy in our group, but I explained that Benjamin was my boyfriend and if I was going to rub anyone's back, it had to be his. He's been chiding me over the years for not giving enough massages, so if I was to end up rubbing some other guy, there would be hell to pay, I am sure. Plus, it's the only way we can have physical contact, so I was all fingers.

We did some Kung Fu forms or katas or some such... not really sure what we did -- the teaching is more along the lines of 'monkey see, monkey do'. I learned that Kung Fu is part yoga, part acrobatics, part dance. It takes a lot of coordination and we learned so many different things, some complex maneuvers, that I got a bit frustrated at times. I opted out of the jumping/rotating/revolving kicks and the flips. They're beyond my skill level (none) and a bit dangerous with the brick floor. After several hours, the group split up so those of us who wanted could learn Qigong and Tai Chi -- I was grateful for this. I've seen ancient Chinese people in the park doing Tai Chi (if they could do it, so could I) and it looked much easier than the more physical Kung Fu. I was tired.

Just got back from the afternoon training session. I was disappointed to repeat what we did in the morning. Although I did feel a bit more comfortable with the Kung Fu -- I still don't know what I'm doing or why I'm doing it...

Today's lunch and dinner were good, but I have a tolerance for the amount of Chinese food I eat and it's already wearing thin. I also have to use the shitter after each meal and I've noticed a strange coloration and consistency to what I leave behind... must be all the veggie food. I think I saw a piece of rice down there in the trough, too... which I thought strange, but it wasn't moving. A good thing, I think.

It's been a tiring day. I'm going to sleep.

Day Three: Notes from Journal

I woke up this morning to the sounds of birds chirping, a rooster roostering, a knife chopping away at a cutting board, the gurgling of the fountain outside, the monks praying and chanting... a wonderful way to wake, as the sun's first rays streak across the sky... but then I tried to get out of bed and my entire body screamed at me louder than any of the other, more pleasant, sounds were capable.

Eventually I hobbled out of bed and got ready for the 6:30 session, although I wasn't positive it would happen based on the previous day's events. Although the prospect of carrying a rock on my head for a 25 minute walk wasn't appealing, I figured it would be good to get into the spirit of things. After brushing my teeth (I'm avoiding the cold water only (and dirty) shower), I went back up to my room to put my things away when I saw some people from our group take off... I missed the river walk because I wasn't downstairs waiting. Apparently the monks leave when they're done with their prayers and it's up to each of us to follow them. I wasn't too broken hearted about it. Benjamin and I took the opportunity to take a walk on our own. We discussed our aches and pains and our hopes for a better day of training (i.e. understanding what it is that we are doing).

I wasn't really in the mood to exercise, what with the 5 hours yesterday and the soreness of my muscles... and my PMS was rearing its ugly head again. We did the same routine as the previous day and then things kind of trickled into a period of laziness. We didn't really learn anything new and I still wasn't sure of the purpose behind the things I was 'learning'. I sat on a bench wondering why I was here... what was the point... if it would be possible to do this for another 4 days. The living conditions are along the lines of camping and I can deal with that, as long as I'm getting something out of it... but so far, I've been left feeling empty.

The food is getting to me... I saw maggots in the toilet trough just now... I am certain that I'll have go a week without showering... and I'm not having much fun -- not the kind of fun that makes you laugh out loud, but the kind of fun that comes with having a rewarding experience. I am starting to realize that coming to this place is probably better suited to a person who knows a little Kung Fu already and would like to practice with skilled monks... or at least a person who is totally 'into' Kung Fu. I am neither -- I don't think I belong here...

Benjamin and I just took a walk during 'free time' and discussed all of this upon learning that one of our group was leaving. We are considering the idea of leaving early ourselves... We probably wouldn't have come up with the idea on our own at this (early) stage of the game. It's just easier when someone else does it first.


A cab showed up for the other guy (who ended up walking instead), we seized the opportunity, rather hastily, and parted ways with the monastery -- me with my head down and tail between my legs, I hate to not finish what I start.

I felt a sort of sadness in the truck fashioned as a cab that took us back to town... wondering if we should have stuck it out a little longer... feeling like a bit of a failure... but after a hot shower and a nap, I awoke with the strange feeling of coming out of a restless sleep full of bizarre dreams. I was in a brand new place, a comfortable place... It was so simple to pull myself out of one situation and to so quickly get settled in another. In the end, I am OK with having left although I wonder what might have happened had we stayed. We'll never know if we missed anything, but Benjamin tells me not to play 'time traveler', meaning: cut it out with the shouldas, couldas, maybes, and ifs...

Benjamin plans to continue in his pursuit of Kung Fu lessons in Yanshuo, our next (and nearly final) destination in China. Me? I'll stick to writing... and maybe just getting myself into 'short term' situations where I don't belong.

Friday, June 17, 2005


We were invited to our first Chinese meal, with Chinese, in Lijiang. We were fortunate to find a guesthouse in Lijiang that was run by the friendliest Chinese couple in the country, and likewise full of the friendliest Chinese tourists. We were immediately invited to join them for dinner our first night, and it became something of a ritual for the rest of our stay there. I have never experienced generosity to the degree that I have in China... we were always invited, and never asked to pay.

Dining in China is always a group activity -- so different than in the States, where families hardly ever sit down together to share a meal anymore. I remember 'every man for himself night' in my teenage years, where leftovers were microwaved and hastily eaten in front of the TV. "We make the community," our friend Simon commented when I pointed out this observation to him. Some say the culture of shared meals is the reason for the strength of family and community in China. I would have to agree.

A Chinese meal consists of many dishes, which everyone shares. Each person gets his own individual bowl of rice and chooses what he wants (and how much) from the overflowing plates of food in the center of the table. A bit unhygenic, one might think, as chopsticks go from the mouth back into the communal plates of food... and over the course of several days, I believe some of us passed a mild cold amongst each other.

The First Night

When dinner was announced, we all sat down at the round table on tiny stools, the kind found in kindergarten classrooms or perhaps, even, oversized doll houses. It doesn't make sense to me, the reason why such an old society as the Chinese have never taken to comfortable furniture, much less furniture that is made for people other than hobbits. The food was laid out, filling the entire table, and glasses of Bijiu, Chinese whiskey so strong it makes the hair on your arms duck for cover, were poured. I fidgeted and adjusted things... the placement of my itsy bitsy chair...the placement of my left buttock on said chair (the right one hung off... not enough room, you see), the arrangement of my chopsticks in my fingers... I wanted to give others a head start so I could see how things were supposed to be done.

Simon mentioned we probably wouldn't like the chicken because of the bones. I was more wary of the colorless chicken head sitting on the plate. The eye was half open and it appeared to be staring at me, like a schoolyard bully, daring me to eat a piece of it, which was rather unappealing as well. The chicken must have been cooked, I presume by steam, for it had the appearance of being raw: dimpled skin, the color Crayola has dubbed 'flesh', the red coloration of blood where major bones and arteries had once been connected to each other.

Chinese etiquette dictates that one should at least try what she is offered. It's a bit rude to decline food, especially. I found it difficult to imagine the chicken going into my mouth, but I am known as one who likes to please. It was even more difficult to manage the bony chunk with my chopsticks... I ended up just using my hands but still found it impossible to locate any meat on the thing I held in my hand. I watched my fellow diners to see how they managed the feat and discovered that all I had to do was chuck the thing on the table. That's what they did when they were done with their bone shard. The table is were everything you don't want in your mouth anymore goes. In fact, it's not rude to spit things out onto the table... and for the lazy, you can just lean over and let it drop out of your mouth.

I flashed back to meals at home when getting a piece of gristle or some other undesirable thing meant a carefully calculated maneuver of wiping the mouth with a napkin while at the same time depositing the thing into the napkin discreetly, so no one will notice -- but I'm sure everyone does notice. There's always the problem of what to do with the napkin afterwards, especially those fancy cloth ones.

The rest of the meal was more appetizing, except for the bowl of 'insides of chicken' as we were told. The meal was over when everyone was sufficiently stuffed -- Simon repeatedly told Benjamin to, "expand your stomach." I don't know how the Chinese stay thin with the amount of food they eat. The family meal doesn't end when the food is taken from the table. People sit around and talk. They hang out. And in this discussion time, in the haze of full bellies, somehow we'd signed ourselves up to cook something for dinner the next night.

I laid in bed awake much of the night fretting about our 'assignment'. There are certain challenges, or limitations I should say, when it comes to the Chinese kitchen. There is no oven or grill -- Chinese food is steamed or fried -- I read somewhere that the Chinese consider roasting meat barbaric, although there are plenty of grills on the street serving up meat on sticks. Our guesthouse had no grill, though, and no oven. There wasn't even a refrigerator. The other issue had to do with utensils. What could we cook that could be eaten with sticks AND was steamed or fried AND with ingredients we could locate in the market AND, finally, something 'American'? The question was mind boggling.

After hours of tossing and turning, with visions of roast beef and baked potatoes smothered in butter and sour cream invading my dreams -- or should I say nightmares as this was food that was totally out of reach and long missed -- I woke at 4 a.m. shouting the words, "Beef stew!" Benjamin mumbled something like, "Huh? Oh...Yum," and then continued to make snoring noises. I went back to sleep peacefully thinking that I had solved our dilemma. I knew we could get the basic ingredients for the stew at the market and while the beef might present itself as a challenge in terms of the form it came in, I felt assured that we could make a mean stew, a meal cooked in a pot (or wok in this case) over the flame of the stove. And spoons are not foreign eating utensils in China... it was perfect.

However, when we woke the next morning the question of broth came up and while we figured we could boil bones in water to make our own, we didn't want to spend the whole day in the kitchen. And while potatoes and carrots and the like would be easy to find, what about the spices that give the thing any flavor? Bay leaves and marjoram... even salt... are not typical Chinese ingredients. So we chucked the plan and put our minds to something simple, something that didn't require utensils or even cooking for that matter. We were also let off the big hook and place on a smaller hook, as our host told us, as we headed out to the market, that we didn't have to do it at all, but if we wanted to make something, to just make one thing... a salad, perhaps (read b-o-r-i-n-g, and besides... what about salad dressing?).

We strategized our plan through taking on a selfish approach. What did we miss -- what have we been salivating over... what would we trade a few thousand tastebuds for a bite of? The answer came to us in a flash... Benjamin had been pining over something since the day we left San Francisco: chips and salsa. We craved something from our favorite neighborhood in the city, The Mission. We figured it would no problem to find the ingredients for the salsa. They're simple. It was the idea of chips that had me nervous, but Benjamin was optimistic and confident that we could make them from scratch, with a recipe from the internet.

We ambled around the market in search of ripe tomatoes and ended up with a handful that looked as if they had been set out on the porch for Halloween to scare little children. They were split from age, dark red, and mushy in some places, but they would do. Onions were easy to find and while we'd seen cilantro in food that we'd eaten, we couldn't find any. Benjamin asked me how much parsley I was going to sample before accepting the fact that there was none there. We picked up some fresh strawberries and cake for desert... we figured that making an appetizer and a desert would be our 'American' contribution -- Chinese meals have neither.

A side note about the market: As a dedicated carnivore, a Chinese market is the one place that almost turned me into a vegetarian: live squealing pigs were held up by one leg for inspection, mangy dogs were crowded in cages like the nearby chickens, animal hearts, hooved legs, brains, innards, and whole heads were on display for sale... it's a place where the term 'meat market' takes on a whole new meaning. In the states, it's easy to buy meat, all nicely packaged and arranged in neat rows by smiling people wearing spotless white overcoats. It's a different story when you see the meat in its original form, before the butcher has turned it into something more artistic by comparison.

We spent 3 hours in the kitchen upon returning from the market. Lilly, our host, was concerned about the amount of time we were spending on our contribution to the meal. But we had fun cooking. After months of traveling, doing something normal, normal being something we would do at home, was a nice respite from sight seeing.

The chips and salsa were moderately hailed with acceptance -- I was struck by how fresh the salsa tasted (Chinese dishes are soggy and pungent)... I'm not sure the fresh taste was one the Chinese are familiar with, hence strange. We had to inform our diners that the chips need not be eaten with chopsticks, another oddity for the Chinese. They even eat french fries and pizza with sticks. Desert was also received with some hesitation. We were told that Chinese don't really like sweets, which explained the reason why cookies bought at bakeries taste like chalk.

We were not asked to contribute to the meals after that night, although we were still invited to join them to eat. And I was a little less bashful about refusing the strange things they served up. We were now all on an even playing field.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Ready, Aim, Fire!

There are legends younger than Chinese plumbing. Once you leave the big cities, or 'bigger' cities, the toilet is nothing more than a hole in the ground -- sometimes disguised as something more with the construction of a tiled platform, which creates a trough over which to squat.

As a little girl, I wished to pee like a boy. It seemed 'cooler' to stand instead of sit and with the logic of a young child, I was unaware that the reason behind the gender based methods of going to the bathroom were based on sound physiological reasons. I tried it once and ended up giving my right leg a shower. And that was the end of that... until now. Like bad alignment on a car, I pull to the right and I've left the Chinese toilets on more than one occasion leaving a single wet footprint in my path.

Entering the WC in China, at first, was a humorous experience for me... with several heads poking up from the waist high partitions, all I could see were pairs of eyes set in a funny sort of concentration, all looking at me. It reminded me of an arcade game where you pound a mallet on the head of a little gopher that pops up erratically from a series of holes. It's generally not a good idea to bop people on the head while they are using the toilet, though, so I ignored the image and found my own wall to peer over.

There is little privacy in China for some matters and in general, the society is communal... and using the toilet is no exception. Sometimes there are no partitions at all and once or twice I've found myself a mere 3 inches away from my neighbor, squatting over a hole, with stage fright. It's particularly embarrassing to have alignment problems when in full view of others -- I've had to call upon ballet training from childhood to correct the problem and I'm sure my bathroom neighbors think I pee funny.

There's a funny sort of etiquette concerning the queue in a Chinese toilet... there is no line, really. People just stand in front of someone else who is squatting over the trough and wait for them to finish. It's a bit of a face off in appearance, except that the person using the toilet is at knee-level, not eye-level, and hence at a disadvantage... except for the fact that they are the one using the toilet, not waiting.

The only other technique necessary when using such toilets is also the most important: making sure flies don't get caught in my underwear when I pull my pants up.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

At Home in Lijiang

We are currently in Lijiang in the Yunnan province (Southern China) with just under one month until our visas expire and a new journey in Vietnam will begin...

Lijiang is a quaint town of cobblestone streets lined with old wooden buildings and shops. The small city is like a maze with a labrynthe of narrow streets criss-crossed by canals and small bridges -- there are no cars here. The streets are too small for autos which makes it a great strolling town. A river runs through the Old Town, lined with restaurants and cafes where people sit in the afternoon sun for tea and family meals. Sitting next to the river for breakfast yesterday morning, I had the feeling, for the first time in a long while, of being on vacation rather than a journey. Lijiang is quiet and clean... and seems almost unreal -- like an Epcot Center version of China... it's heavily touristed by Chinese and feels like a vacation destination, but nonetheless, it is a nice place to hang out for a few days.

There is a large population of the Naxi minority, descendants of Tibetan Qiang tribes. The Naxi are a matrilineal society, which means that women run the show. Historically, the Naxi have an interesting take on love affairs -- a couple pairs up, have children even, but don't necessarily live together or get married. The women take possession of the children and when the relationship ends, there is no further support from the father -- paternity is not carefully considered. This is all on the terms of the Naxi women and it is said that this freedom is perhaps the reason they've been able to have a 'hold' over the men. In addition to relationships, the matrileneal society allows women to own property and gives the power of settling disputes to elder women. The 'girls rule' attitude is even extended to the Naxi language. Adding the words 'female' or 'male' to a term changes its meaning. For example, combining female + rock means 'boulder', whereas combining male + rock means 'pebble'. The dress of the Naxi women is masculine in appearance. They wear blue caps on their heads, and blue blouses and trousers covered with a blue or black apron. I think they are pretty cool.

We're staying at a cozy courtyard hotel with a nice garden complete with song birds in delicate wooden cages hung in the trees. Aside from us, everyone here are Chinese tourists, a nice change of pace from the hostels we've stayed elsewhere in China, which are full of Westerners. We've been incorporated into the 'family' here, which consists of the hotel managers and several Chinese tourists... we've been invited to the communal meals each night in the courtyard and will also be traveling with them tomorrow to a town 200 kms north, Zhongdian, where a horse-racing festival is happening over the next few days: singing, dancing, eating, and of course... horse races will fill our two days there. Zhongdian is also called 'Shangri La' by the Chinese and according to the LP guidebook, it's a town of heavy Tibetan influence... which is the main reason to come here, especially for those not heading to Tibet (like us). It's a good place to see the culture and I've heard from some travelers that towns like this are, nowadays, almost more Tibetan than Tibet itself...

Our new 'family' will drop us off at Tiger Leaping Gorge on the way back to Lijiang -- it's one of the deepest gorges in the world. The Yangzi River -- called the Jinsha Jiang here -- rushes through the gorge, which measures 16 km; it's 3900 km from the water to the peak of the snowcapped mountain tops. I don't think the hike will take us to the full height of the mountain, but it will be a strenuous climb to be sure. We'll stay one night on the mountain and do the climb down, returning to Lijiang the next day. We've read that the trek is not to be taken lightly... people have died by straying from the trails and getting lost... or getting swallowed up in landslides. No worries, though... we will not be doing THIS hike in the rain. We've had enough of that.

We've truly made ourselves at home here in Lijiang, and at this hotel in particular. China has a largely communal society where people hang out in the streets playing card games, 'Go', and Mahjong; people eat together in large groups, sharing food from the same bowls; people spend large amounts of time talking and socializing whether they be friends or strangers. We like this aspect of Chinese society (except when it pertains to the toilets, but that's another blog in and of itself). As we've been invited to share meals here, we decided to contribute something ourselves... maybe it was the whiskey speaking, or maybe a temporary case of insanity... the other night we offered to make some 'Western' food for one of the night's meals. This is a long story in and of itself, one I will tell soon but not here -- suffice it to say that Chinese markets have few ingredients recognizable to our Western eyes. Making food proved to be a difficult task and making something appealing to the Chinese palette all the more challenging... but it's the effort that matters...

Monday, June 06, 2005

A Stairway to Heaven, A Hell on Earth

If anyone had ever asked me what my definition of 'hell on earth' was, I would have described the hike that we did two days ago... a climb in the mist of fog and chill of rain up endless, ancient stairs to the top of a mountain over 3,000 meters tall (that's 9,840 feet). Ironically, the steep ascent into thickening clouds also makes this hike feel like a stairway to Heaven...

Emei Shan is a sacred mountain, one of the Middle Kingdom's four Buddhist Mountains, and home to active temples and monasteries. It's also the big tourist draw in Southern Sichuan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a residence for monks and nuns, and a place of pilgrimage for Buddhist followers and insane backpackers like me.

Looking at maps of Emei mountain, I noticed that the summit is always illustrated as a lonesome but majestic peak that overlooks a sea of clouds... and this is the lure of the Golden Temple, situated at the top of Emei... it appears to be a tiny kingdom above the clouds. The goal of many visitors to Emei Shan is to witness a sunrise from here, over the carpet of cloud underfoot while standing on the peak. Under good weather conditions, it's rare but possible to observe a phenomenon where one sees his own shadow in the clouds with an aura of rainbow colors around his silhouette. It's said that pilgrims and monks used to interpret this as a special "sign" and would often throw themselves off the face of the mountain, to their deaths, in joy.

The day before we left for our hike up the mountain, I sat at a small table outside a cafe looking at the misty dark hills. I was feeling a bit anxious... about the pain, the physical exertion... I'd heard too many stories of suffering in the preceding days. A San Diego woman I met in Chendgu told me she turned back after several hours. She couldn't keep up with the group she was with and when she saw an Israeli girl limping down the mountain with swollen knees, she decided to go back to the bottom with her. I'd heard stories about people who got 'stuck' at a monastery at the top for several days because their legs seized up and they couldn't move. One girl, I'd heard, had torn the ligaments around her kneecap in a fall and had to be carried down the mountain after waiting for days for the weather to clear. Inside the cafe, written upon the walls, were the stories of travelers before me: people with tales about treacherous wild monkeys, slippery scenic overlooks, and impossibly sore bodies.

I put the physical nightmares aside -- I knew the hike was going to test my fitness so there was no point in worrying about it -- I was more concerned with the weather conditions. Emei is often shrouded in mist, fog, and rain which reduce visibility and give the steps a slick, slippery coating. I didn't want to put all that effort into climbing the mountain, only to see nothing... I wanted some sort of pay off for the pain. The climb, I thought, would be a waste of time and energy without a big payoff. I wanted to see mountain views. I wanted to see the sunrise. Heck, maybe I'd be one of the 'lucky' ones and would see my shadow, rainbow aura and all, in the clouds... And as everyone knows, the more you worry about something, the more it is likely to happen... so, of course, the two days I spent hiking up Emei were so misty, so foggy, so cloudy, so rainy that I barely saw anything but the thousands of steps in my future and anything within 10 feet, which mostly consisted of the thousands of steps in front of me.

That's not to say that what I could see was not beautiful... the stairs were hewn from aged stone; the forest was lush, green, and dense; mist swirled in the air and settled like massive cotton balls in valleys; the sound of dripping water pattered softly on leaves; tiny wildflowers sprinkled color along the stair path. Every now and then, we would come upon a monastery, quiet in its solititude on the face of a mountain. One even had a thriving garden of light green cabbages, their enormous heads pushing out from dark, damp soil. People in the distance appeared as fuzzy silhouettes, their shapes and colors subdued by wet mist.

In the first 1/2 hour of climbing I was miserable. I was especially miserable because I knew I had 14 km ahead of me that day and I was breathless and annoyed with never ending steps already. Why are we doing this, I wondered. Why does anyone do this, I wondered. How are people capable of doing this, I wondered. I began to flip through a mental album of superheroes to answer the last question... Superman wouldn't do it -- he'd just fly to the top and be done with it. Spiderman would travel there on a web cast from the top of the highest hotel at the mountain's base. Wonderwoman would arrive to the Golden Summit in an invisible plane... and the Supertwins would just turn themselves into an escalator. No, not even superheroes would do this climb, I concluded... but there I was climbing the mountain and there was no turning back... I have too much pride for that. And besides, once you are hauling yourself up the mountain, with no road access, there really is nowhere to go but up. Walking down is just as hard on the body.

I asked Benjamin why the Buddhist pilgrims do the hike. What do they get out of it? I thought perhaps if I knew their purpose, I could make it my own, thereby giving a reason to the madness. I wanted to know what their reward was and to adopt it as my own. I wanted the effort to result in something, to have meaning, to have a purpose I could work towards.

These thoughts distracted me from the pain for a while but eventually, my mind returned to the lifting of my legs, the thinning altitude, the thickening fog. And then it happened: my brain went numb. I'd entered a meditative state and found a rhythm of stepping and lifting, stepping and lifting. That old saying, 'one day at a time' was easily transferable to 'one step at a time', but I realized this sentiment was nothing but a tired cliche. There were no answers in it. What more can I get out of this experience, I asked myself. Again my thoughts turned to the pilgrims and Buddhism... and in between panting breaths and bursts of heat in my quads, I thought that maybe the only lesson to be learned was something I already knew of Buddhist teachings: that life is painful and to get through it, I just needed to work through it -- deal with it, to achieve the ultimate goal of peace and quiet... a simple goal, an honorable purpose. But still, it was damn hard.

My ego got in the way, of course... this Buddhist 'test' was not only one of physical and mental endurance but also one of humility. A group of younger 'kids' caught up and eventually passed us as Benjamin and I stood on a step clutching the hand rail and wiping the sweat from our foreheads.

"Just don't stop," I heard one of them say to another, "The trick is to keep moving because once you stop, you have to start again."

I'm sure he felt my eyeballs searing into the back of his head. Easy for you to say, I thought... If I did this thing without taking a rest after every 100 or so steps, the Emei Shan authorities would have to recover my body from the bottom of a ravine where I'd have plunged after getting dizzy, falling unconscious, and hurtled over the side of the mountain.

So this group of 'kids' (they were probably in their mid 20s) passed us and something in me, the part that denies my age and waning physical prowess, wanted to stay in step with them, even if it meant my ultimate death. 'If they can do it, I can do it' I thought to myself. Benjamin noticed the competitive edge to my nonchalant comments, "Do you hear something? Sounds like footsteps... let's get going again..." or "Shit, they're gaining on us..."

He told me not to worry. He said, "Everyone does what they can do," and happily remained motionless on our perch, a step in the middle of the biggest staircase on Earth. After thinking about it for a while, I agreed. It actually didn't take much for him to convince me -- I was f-in tired and the power of that was greater than my ego. Another lesson learned, I thought... shedding of the ego. As the day progressed, I began to recite my newfound wisdom in quick quips, calling upon the vocal stylings of Yoda, "To the top, we must go..." I'd picked up a walking stick in the shape of a cane along the way and when I found myself leaning onto it with both hands during periods of rest, my resemblance to Yoda (despite the difference of several feet in height and and the face of an ancient fetus) was uncanny.

I was getting something out of this experience, this pilgrimage, afterall... I began to think of it as a 'tool' I would use in the future, during hard times. I use the large tattoo on my lower back in this way. When I'm in a situation that calls for it, I think to myself, 'if I could sit for four hours enduring the pain of the needle, I can do this...' Now I had Emei Shan to add to my toolbox.

After 7 hours of trudging up stairs, we finally arrived at a rustic monastery where we spent the night. Inside, it was dark and still, years of burning incense imbued the wood walls and creaking floorboards with perfumed scent; bald headed monks in dull orange robes moved about swiftly and silently, as if their feet hovered above the floor; golden Buddhas peered out from behind glass encasements, keeping watch over the place, the people, and their little patch of mountainside. After a bit of bargaining with a monk (they're crafty, those monks), we had a bed for the night, a dinner of noodles, and we retired to our room to the sound of the monks chanting in the temple. We slept well and awoke at 9 in the morning to the sound of knocking on the door. Apparently the monks thought it was time for us to get up. We made jokes about how they must have thought we were lazy. They'd probably been up since 5 a.m. and our waking hour was midday for them.

Our second day of hiking was spent in hard rain. We wore blue trash bag ponchos to ward off the wetness to no avail. We were sopping wet by the time we reached the summit, another 7 km from the monastery, and in the misty mountain, there was no chance for our only clothes to dry out. For this reason, we decided that we would not stay overnight at the top of the mountain for the sunrise for fear of getting sick. Besides, we reasoned, with weather like this, there is no way there will be a visible sunrise in the morning. We took the bus down the mountain, a 2 hour ride, and arrived back to the bottom with one thought on our minds: it's time for a beer.

And when we woke this morning, the day we should have been waking on the summit, I learned the final lesson of my Emei Shan experience. The lesson of passive indifference. We woke to bright blue skies and shining sun. We're positive that had we stayed on the mountain, we would have seen the sunrise afterall... and with all the hard work to get to the top, it would have made the pain all worth while. But in the end, despite the low visibility and strenuous effort to see nothing, the journey to the top was an achievement... sunrise or no.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Songpan Horse Trek

I've heard that sometimes people take on the appearance and personality of their pet. Growing up, I had a neighbor -- a middle aged woman -- with a bow legged Scotty dog. She walked funny, too, with a curvature between her legs that reminded me of cowboys. It was then that I decided that this myth had some truth in it.

And so it was that the horse that became 'my horse' for our three day horse trek in Songpan seemed to be a mirror of myself. He liked to eat; he was lazy in the morning; and he liked to be at the front of our caravan. Where we differ was in his tactics. He liked to eat thorny bushes; he would still climb muddy mountain slopes despite his lethargy; he would bite and kick the other horses who tried to pass. I'm much nicer than that...

Songpan,a small town in Northern Sichuan, is situated at 8,000 feet, and nestled at the foot of the Minshan Mountains, in the midst of idyllic countryside of hills made to look velveteen by sunlight captured in overhangs, tall grass, terraces... Surrounding Songpan are unspoiled forests, lakes, waterfalls, and farm land... a setting and a place that hearken back to bygone days of the original township, which was established over 23 centuries ago.

A passageway to the Jiuzhai Valley, Songpan is a part of the Aba Tibetan and Qiang autonomous prefecture, with a community of Tibetan, Qiang and Han Chinese residents. Once a stop for traveling merchants, Songpan is now a tiny, inconsequential town seen from the window of a bus heading to Jiuzhaigou nature reserve, or for those who choose to get off that bus and spend some time, Songpan is a quaint, picturesque place with an Old West vibe, where horses can be seen in the streets mingling with autos and bicycles. It's the perfect place to saddle up and get out in nature in a way you couldn't or wouldn't be able to do otherwise.

Day One
Our caravan included 10 people and 10 horses,there were 5 of us 'tourists', each with our own guide and horse handler. We were a group of Americans, Israelis, a Frenchman, and local Chinese (the guides). We left town in a flourish of clip-clopping hooves and bright smiles, passing townspeople, shops, tea houses, and homes. We passed through the ancient city gates and found ourselves climbing the mountainside immediately. Villages perched on hillsides overlooking the bright green valley; farmers were out tending to their crops while children sat nearby playing in mud; fences made of sticks surrounded gardens; the skies were a mix of blue and gray with puffy cotton clouds sparring with heavy brooding clouds, taunting us with the possibility of rain; expansive vistas filled the horizon from the top of ridges that looked down upon grassy fields and rambling rivers.

After a bit of riding on the horses, we stopped to dismount for the steep climb down. It's too dangerous to ride the horses downhill and as my feet tackled the sheer, rocky hillside, I began to wonder if was not also dangerous to walk it. That's the pattern we set... riding horses up twisting, steep mountain passes, walking down the other side of them. As we entered a dense, dark forest, my skin prickled with goosebumps as the temperature dropped and my appreciation for the horse grew as he tackled impossible muddy trails leading up the mountain. The mud was deep enough to meet the knees of the horse, each step made a sloooorp and suction noise as the horse methodically worked his way uphill. Walking down the muddy tracts was something, I thought, would have been great fun as a kid, when falling is fun and getting dirty is the modus operatus. I'd wished I had real hiking boots on my feet as the wet muck seeped into my sandal/sport shoes, but once I gave in to the fact that I was camping after all, I let go of the tree branches I'd been using along the way as a series of impromptu walking aids and let the mud have its way with me.

About 3 hours after the start of our journey, we arrived at a meadow sprinkled with tiny yellow flowers where we set up camp for the night. Rather, the guides set up camp for the night. The rest of us had to do nothing but enjoy the scenery and the secluded lake nearby. We ate a dinner of rice, spicy vegetables and tomato/cabbage soup and as the darkening evening set in, the fire was stoked and the Chinese whiskey was passed around the group, an occasional Tibetan song rang out in the quiet. The sound of thunder in the distance eventually came upon us, rumbling across the sky and illuminating the meadow with lightening as rain poured upon the protection of the communal tent under which we all sat. When bed time came, Benjamin and I retreated to the canvas tent we shared with the Frenchman and laid down upon our bed of tarps and quilts that had been laid over the boughs of pine trees to soften the hardness of the ground.

Days Two and Three
The rest of the horse trek went on in this way, with changing scenery as we rode, different meals, and a new place to sleep at night... Having become accustomed to the ways of my horse, I was able to appreciate the details of my surroundings. In the forest, there was moss hanging from trees, like fine silk wool the color of sea foam green... villagers in Tibetan dress popped up here and there, some with babies on their back, others with spinning prayer wheels in hand... wild horses played in streams... sheep grazed in green pastures... prayer flags flapped taughtly in the wind... undulating hills gave way to plateaus with grazing yaks... clouds hung in the sky lightly, far below us... at one point the sound of a helicopter broke me from a daydream and looking out into the distance for the sound, I noticed that it was below me. What an awesome feeling, to be higher in the sky than a flying machine.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005


Clear turquoise lakes full of fallen trees, mournful and stoic like patient ghosts; deep, dark forests full of wild flowers and streams; sharp, crystalline skies that fight for space with taunting dark clouds; water that falls over hillsides of black rock and courses over forested plains; reflections and shadows that are capable of mesmerizing even the most focused monk; Tibetan villages brightly painted with fantastical imagery and colors of hot orange, yellow, and red; mist that swirls in the tops of dark pine trees on mountainsides... This is Jiuzhaigou, a nature reserve in Northern Sichuan, located within the borders of an autonomous zone for Tibetan and Qiang minorities.

We traveled 12 hours north of Chengdu to get to the park aboard a ramshackle bus, sitting in seats so tiny we were forced to wedge our bodies into place sideways. But the uncomfort was well worth the trip. The drive itself was not without its own kind of beauty. The road we took wound its way along a scenic river up, up, up mountains and transported us from the urban city sprawl of Chengdu to wide vistas and the rustic countryside. The road was elevated high on the side of the mountains,crossing over concrete bridges that spanned vast valleys and through endless tunnels hazy with exhaust. Far down below,several towns lay in ruins -- a curious site, entire cities demolished. Concrete and brick rubble in piles next to a fast moving river. Several buildings were still standing, but without a roof; inside the walls were painted egg shell blue. Farmers on sheer hillsides worked the land with hoes in between rows of corn and wheat growing on impossibly steep angles.

Soon after lunch (we had a dish of pork fat and fried green onions... yum), I buried my nose in a book for several hours, getting lost in the story, which was set in America. It's always a shock to lose myself in a novel about a place that is familiar and then looking up,I find myself back in the foreign in an instant... it takes a moment to readjust to the sights and sounds surrounding me and it always sends my brain into a momentary spasm of confusion. The sensation reminds me of the butterfly feeling that happens to the stomach when driving over a bump in the road -- when I was younger, my friends and I knew of a certain road with just the right sized bump and we would drive up and down that road, over and over again, just to feel our stomachs tingle.

At one point during our drive to Jiuzhaigou, I looked up to find a whole new scene outside of the window. Long haired white yaks with brightly colored pompoms and other decorations stood on the side of the road with 'hill people',Tibetan jewelry and souvenir stands. There was a mist in the air which had become chilly in the high altitude. Little girls walked through the streets of villages with rosy, pink cheeks from the drizzle and cold. The hills and land: bright shades of green -- steep, straight, flat. Black,craggy mountains with snowy crowns looked like they were glowing as the gray sky opened up just above their peaks to white heaven.

We arrived to Jiuzhaigou in the setting darkness of the evening and checked into a hotel outside the park entrance for one night. Our plan was to get up early the next day and set out for several days in the reserve. According to the LP guidebook, we could stay overnight in the park, but that was published three years ago and as we've found in China, a fast developing nation, three years can be a lifetime. The rules have changed and a sign in the ticket office proclaims staying in the park to be 'prohibited'. But we'd met an Israeli couple on the bus the previous day and had quickly transformed our separate groups of 2 into a single group of 4. They thought we should ignore the sign and we agreed, albeit with some trepidation.

Eli and Nalda were on their honeymoon and despite this, they were still up for traveling together in Jiuzhaigou. Our group, somehow, formed itself naturally, without effort. We were strangers when we boarded the bus from Chengdu, but by the time we got to Jiuzhaigou, we were all travel partners. It's interesting how this happens -- it's happened to us before, in India with a Dutch couple -- there is never a discussion about it, no plans are made... It just happens. It reminds me of being a child, when making friends is as easy as walking up to another kid with a toy you'd like to play with. Then next thing you know, you've been friends, sometimes best friends, with that kid for as long as you can remember... it's rare for that to happen in adulthood, except when you're on the road.

The four of us ventured into the park and began our search for a place to stay. There are three Tibetan villages and as fate would have it, we found our hideout in the last village, the most remote, in the home of a Tibetan family. It had been a long haul with all of our packs on. We were all quite ready to take anything by the time we found the place. As I walked into the village, an old man carrying a baby on his back flashed me a smile and waved his hand towards his home. He had a twinkle in his eye and though our communications with him and his family consisted of pantomime and grunts, it was relatively easy to secure two rooms for the night, where we dropped our packs and began our first day's hike of Jiuzhaigou.

Being a place that one is not supposed to stay except for a day, there are few food options. We spent that first day eating pre-packaged food found in a concession area. It was slim pickings as nothing is recognizable and in China, there is a lot of room for error -- are those pig's ears in that bag? Are those spiced intestines in that one? Are those worms or pickled vegetables? We played it safe -- Benjamin bought peanuts and I bought chocolate Oreos. Eli and Nalda bought dried lotus(?) and more peanuts. This constituted our breakfast and lunch.

Jiuzhaigou is immensely beautiful, as well as huge. Most of the other 'tourists' there were Chinese on package tours, taking the bus from one scenic spot to another.. getting off to snap a few quick pics before heading off to the next place. We chose to take the bus to the top of the mountain and walk down along the plank pathway through forest, by lakes, and over streams and waterfalls. Towards the end of the day we noticed the busses were no longer going up the hill and when we made our way to the road, we were picked up by a truck going down. We determined that the park was closing soon and the employees were trying to herd the visitors to the exit. It was only 5 p.m. and we didn't want to stop our hike, much less be taken to the exit. Our packs were at our 'guesthouse', a place we weren't supposed to be, and it was totally out of the way from the park's exit.

Conversations ensued as to what to do. Would we be 'caught'? What would they do... what should our story be? Benjamin and I spent a lot of time discussing the options, strategizing a 'plan A', a 'plan B', and a backup plan if either of those should fail. The Israelis didn't seem to mind. Eli said they are used to breaking the rules -- Americans and Europeans, he said, do things the 'right way'. We discussed the cultural differences between us, them being comfortable in bending the rules, us being wary of what might happen to us if we do. I started to feel like a big wuss. Was it the Catholic guilt instilled in me in childhood? Or was it the overabundance of rules and consequences in America that had me thinking to hard? In the end, it mattered not... escaping the park employees proved to be a non-issue.

The four of us retired to our rooms -- simple rooms -- with thin, bare walls and a wood plank floor... we stayed there without access to a real meal (the old man's daughter did sell us some instant noodles and boiled eggs), and went to bed early as the family was concerned about people seeing the light from our rooms after the sun went down. We spent the evening, up unto the point of 'lights out', sitting on benches that lined a courtyard in front. We talked about the day's events, the potential for a very cold, very uncomfortable night in our spartan rooms, and the lack of real nutrition after miles of hiking. Eli went out looking for 'real food' -- he is prone to do this. He and Nalda have survived the eating hassles in China because he goes into the kitchen to point at what they want. He took off looking for food in the village's surrounding homes and though he came back empty handed, he did have a few stories. That family over there, they wouldn't sell him their goat. And that family over there... they invited him in to watch a VCD -- the only material possession in their home was their TV with VCD player and a cell phone.

The night passed with deep dreams. Everyone was surprised when I announced, in the morning, that I'd had one of the best night's sleep I'd had in a while, despite the fact that I slept in all of my clothes, the same clothes I spent the day hiking in (windbreaker and all). There were down comforters which proved to be quite warm in the night's cold of an unheated wooden room. The windbreaker did its bit, too.

We spent our second day hiking and found a lunch buffet to refuel. We had all kinds of intricate plans to get back to our guesthouse before the busses stopped going 'uphill' again -- we'd learned our lesson from the previous day. Nevertheless, we found ourselves in a scramble towards the end of the day to get back to our remote village to retrieve our packs before the busses stopped running altogether. It all worked out. We got back uphill on one of the last busses going that way -- got our packs -- and hoofed it downhill until we found a bus taking park visitors to the exit.

All of mine and Benjamin's scheming looked all the more silly when we simply walked through the exit with no questions asked. We laughed at the exertion and worry spent on getting 'caught'. The four of us got rooms at a hotel near the bus stop and reveled in the fact that there was a hot shower and real beds with real pillows waiting for us. We were also excited to eat a real dinner at a little restaurant near the hotel -- a place with kindergarten-sized chairs and tables. This is how the Chinese eat... on miniscule furniture that we all, especially Benjamin, looked ridiculous sitting on. Eli, of course, went into the kitchen to select our meal. He found a live fish swimming in a tub of water. They grilled it and served it to us 'Sichuan style'... in hot, spicy oil.

We woke the next morning early for a quick bus ride (3 hours) to Songpan where we were to get on horses for three days... more to come...