Sunday, May 4, 2008

Week 11....We find Heaven

Friday – April 25

Katie heads off to school and Stephen and I head up to Beijing University. It is a gorgeous campus, much larger than Renmin. There is a beautiful lake with everything in bloom around it. We see a camera crew shooting a guy doing martial arts at the side of the lake. It turns out the kung-fu master was Italian, as was the camera crew. We meander around the campus and stumble upon the Sackler Museum. The museum holds the skeleton of a 24,000 year old man, or I think that is what it said. There are tools, pots and cooking vessels from the earliest humans in China and detailed explanation of the various settlements along the Yellow and Yangtze River basins. The descriptions are in excellent English (unlike most museums where one has to really work to get the English meaning). I am slowly beginning to get a timeline in my head about the various Chinese Dynasties.

We return to Renmin and invite Eve over for lunch. Stephen has brought a lot of documents from Yiyang to show her. He also brought her a gorgeous photo book of Walden and another book of Thoreau’s essays about Cape Cod. She keeps calling him Mr. Conlin!

At 2:30, Shen Shifu picks us up and we go to Katie’s school. Shen Shifu then drives all of us to the Lama Temple and we stroll around there. I really need to take a crash course on Tibet and Buddhism. The temple is lovely, but after a while, I feel like I did when I was in Europe, one gorgeous cathedral after another, and then they all blend together. The most memorable thing at this temple is the giant Buddha, in the Guinness book of World Records. It is three stories high made of a single piece of wood.

From the Lama Temple we head off to an early dinner with Mark (Ma Chenyi). Mark was our wonderful guide when we adopted Katie ten years ago. I dubbed him Katie’s “godfather” because he was so helpful to me during our first special days with Katie. Mark is now married to a lovely woman who is still in the adoption field. They met at the airport one day when both were surrounded by a gaggle of adoptive families. They both went to grad school in St. Louis at Washington University and got masters degrees in social work. Mark now works for the World Wildlife Fund. We had dinner at an old family restaurant with a beautiful courtyard. It was on a street full of restaurants so we’ll have to remember how to get back there. It was just great to see Mark again. He looks the same, but seems older and wiser, and somehow, reminded me of Bill Gates with his mannerisms and speaking style.

Saturday April 26

Stephen checks his email first thing and we get one entitled “bad news” from Stephen’s sister, Maureen. Stephen’s father fell and broke his hip. He is having surgery tomorrow. Unfortunately, we are headed to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province in southwest China and not sure how much internet access we’ll have. I know Stephen is worried. We get to the Beijing airport, the shiny new Terminal Three. We wait in line to check in and told the 11am flight is “delayed” and we need to go over “there” somewhere to see if we can get an earlier flight. We wait in another long line and the first flight we can get is not until 3pm, and it leaves from Terminal One. While Stephen is waiting to get the new tickets, I go to the ATM to get money, but the machine is broken, then I attempt to go to the ladies room, but it is out of order. So much for the “new” terminal!! We have lunch/snack at Starbucks and Haagen Das and a Chinese noodle place at the airport and then take a shuttle bus that says it goes to terminal 1 and 2. Katie and I shove our way onto the bus, while Stephen gets the luggage loaded under the bus. But it is so packed, I fear he will not get himself on the bus and we’ll be split up. Thankfully, he squeezes himself on at the last minute. The ride is maybe 15-20 minutes, going back on the highway. And it leaves us at Terminal Two. The driver motions for us to walk to the left to find Terminal One. Well, it is a very long walk, maybe a half mile or more, to Terminal One. Why the shuttle bus can’t take you there is a mystery. I am really glad we had hours to kill, because the total time to get from Terminal Three to our Gate in Terminal one was more than an hour. We would never have made a quick change. The three hour flight to Chengdu is very bumpy, jumpy, and scary and the flight attendants incessantly come on the speaker to tell us that “we are experiencing turbulence”….like we didn’t know?

We arrive in Chengdu and are greeted by our guide, a young woman named Echo, whose English is quite good. She takes us to the hotel, and we are in a smoking room, which really reeks of cigarettes. But we’re tired and decide to stay. We go out for a little walk. Looks like another big, dirty, Chinese city, with the checkerboard of glitzy malls and dumpy garage-style shops. Stephen calls home on his cell phone and checks in with his mother. His father’s hip surgery went well and he’ll head to rehab in a few days. We all feel relieved that he is OK.

Sunday. April 27

We have a buffet breakfast at the hotel and then Echo meets us for a drive out to the Panda Preserve. It is a huge park, with groves of bamboo and other lush vegetation all around. We go up a flight of stairs and resting on branch in front of us is our first panda. This is a young one, chomping on some bamboo. He lumbers over to us, and sits down about four or five feet from us, separated by a cement ravine. He looks right at me and playfully chomps on his bamboo. Very cute. We come up to another area where there are twin pandas, “adopted” says the sign by International Data Group. I believe that is the company that Hugo Shong founded (he and I were at Fletcher and BU at the same time, but did not meet until a few years ago when he became a trustee at BU). We then go to the next area and a bunch of giant pandas, maybe 5 or 6 are playing in a pool of water. Down the road a young one takes a ride down a slide. At one point the guide says if we want to hold a baby panda, now is the time. We go over to a closed door that says “staff only”, and fork over a lot of money….I am embarrassed to say how much but more than is rational! Katie and I are admitted inside quickly, and the door closes behind us. Stephen is not allowed in, and he is having a coronary over the money I just shelled out. Inside, they give us booties to put on our feet and Katie is draped in a surgical gown. The family before us must have paid double, because they have mom and daughter suited up and the dad and grand-dad are both there with cameras. They get a few minutes with the panda and then it is Katie’s turn. They sit her on a bench and bring in the baby panda for her to hold. It is almost as big as she is and she tells me later she almost dropped it. I snap four or five pictures with the panda on her lap and I am waiting for them to sit the panda beside her for another set of photos like the previous family took, but she is whisked away and a new customer is on the bench. All told, we had maybe 45 seconds with the panda. Worth it? Not really. But if I hadn’t done it, I’d kick myself later, I’m sure. Katie is ecstatic!! So for her, it was definitely worth it. After an hour or two of pandemonium we take a quick walk through the area that is set aside for red pandas, who look more like raccoons than pandas.

From panda heaven we go to lunch and learn that Sichuan food really is the spiciest stuff on the planet. We also learn the words bu la: no spice, for future food orders! Then we go to Renmin Park, a lovely park in the center of Chengdu. Everyone is out for a Sunday in spring. Echo, our guide, treats us to a candy lollipop, made to order for us. We spin a wheel and whatever animal it lands on, the candy maker pours the hot sugary substance on a slab or marble and creates this ornate, thread-thin outline of an animal. I get a dragon which is extra special and very tasty! In the teahouse in the park, people play board games or sprawl out for a nap. Children in split pants are everywhere. We also see two men walking around clinking two small pieces of metal together and hawking their trade. Echo explains that these are ear cleaners who will clean out your ear wax in the park! At one point we see a bunch of large color wedding photos with some old black and white passport photos attached. Apparently, during the cultural revolution or other times of real poverty, people could not afford a wedding or a photo, so now, they bring black and white photos of themselves in Mao suits and this guy digitizes them into these color glossies of them in tux and white dress to create a faux wedding photo. Later, we go into this wysteria covered gazebo and listen to “karoke” of sorts. Old folks are belting out Communist Revolutionary theme songs in one corner, while another group is offering up Tibetan dance and song. The Tibetan dancer wears a cowboy hat and his two women companions are dressed to kill in glitzy costumes and spike heels. A bit later, we see a group of dolled up older Chinese women doing ballroom dancing, and they manage to enlist a western tourist to join them on the dance floor. The American man looks a little awkward, but his Chinese dance partner, a 60-ish woman with a red-dyed bouffant hairdo, is beaming!! On another park bench we see notebooks filled with dossiers in Chinese. This is matchmaking in the park. Mothers bring pictures of their sons and daughters, complete with information such as education, occupation and SALARY, and put them in the notebooks so that other mothers can check out prospective dates/mates for their children. A very low-tech….orchestrated by the mothers. I am so glad we took this stroll through the park instead of going to the museum which was on our planned itinerary. What a lovely little window into ordinary Chinese lives.

From there we went to a silk “factory”…there are dozens of these show “factories” all over China. You get a demonstration on how the silk, in this case (or jade, or cloisonné, or porcelain) are made and then get a hard sell sales pitch to buy from their overpriced store. But despite the sales pitch, it was fascinating to learn how silk is made, from mulberry tree cocoon to gorgeous embroidered quilts, clothing and artwork, even if the whole scene is contrived. We did buy a few scarves there, but know we could do much better price-wise at some other location.

For dinner, Stephen orders a curried chicken dish, but does not say bu la so he has to leave dinner early to go take a shower. The sweat was literally pouring off his face. I am glad I ordered a western club sandwich and fries! After dinner, we go to a variety of show of Sichuan opera, hand puppets, mask-changing magic, and shadow-finger show. Very cheesey, but Katie enjoyed it.

Monday April 28

We check out at 10 and head to Leshan, about two hours away, to see the Giant Buddha. The ride out is lovely, through rice paddies and tea plantations. We stop at one roadside tea “factory” and taste a few teas and walk through a tea grove. I buy some jasmine tea allegedly grown in this area….although someone else has told me it is a specialty of Fujian province along the southeast coast.

We eat lunch in Leshan, and order some of the food that my student Michael, who is from Leshan, had written down for us to order….but we remember to say bu la this time. It is all delicious and I text message Michael back in Beijing, to thank him for his good recommendations. From there we head to a boat dock and board a ferry out onto the river. We wait around for enough other tourists to board. A group of country bumpkins want to take their pictures with Stephen, who, Echo translates, they think is a movie star -- which one, I am not sure! We take the boat along the river and carved into the cliff is a Giant, (maybe 15 story tall) Buddha. It is the largest Buddha in the world. His ears are 7 meters long. (I think the Chengdu park ear-cleaners would have a field day here!) Very impressive. It is situated at the confluence of three rivers, and many people were killed in the treacherous waters. So in 713 AD, the Buddha was carved into the cliff to protect the boats. After we leave the boat we take a hike up the side of the cliff and stand above the Buddha looking back down at the river. This is a lovely park and walk, and another bunch of country bumpkins want our photo. This time I look like the movie star, apparently! I think this group has had a liquid lunch…they are effusively friendly! Leaving the Buddha we descend this long staircase. Ahead of me is an elderly woman, less than five feet tall, who is carrying a 6 or7 foot load on her back, full of plastic bottles. She will recycle them for money. About half way down the stairs, I give her my bottle and she is beams with this extraordinary smile across her wizened face. I marvel at her industriousness, but I worry about so many elderly Chinese women, scrounging for a few jiao to stay alive.

We leave Leshan and return to Chengdu for a night flight to Lijiang. We eat dinner at the airport Kentucky Fried Chicken. Stephen orders in Chinese and he is so proud of himself that they understood what he wanted. I think it is great that he is so into learning the language! I think the three of us should divvy up the vocabulary and each learn something useful, rather than all of us learning the same stuff and being only a third as competent. But Katie nixes that idea.

The flight to Lijiang leaves at 8:30. Lijiang is in Yunnan Province, bordering Tibet. We will be in the mountains in a ancient village that UNESCO declared a world heritage site in 1997. We arrive after ten, greeted by our guide Peter, and it is cold and raining. We are dressed for hot Chengdu. We arrive at the hotel around 11. We ask Peter if we can have a late start tomorrow, but he says we have tickets for the Snow Mountain between 9 and 10 so we need to leave the hotel at 8:30. The hotel is an old courtyard style house and our room door is actually a carved wooden screen with a padlock on it. Very quaint, but the interior of the room is very modern. We figure out how to turn on the heat and fall sound asleep.

Tuesday – April 29

Up early and it is raining. Katie is exhausted but we drag ourselves across the street to this Tibetan restaurant for breakfast. Great little place, two stories, covered with images and trinkets from Tibet. The furniture is all this brightly colored Tibetan stuff, and stuffed couches, not really a traditional restaurant. Breakfast is western, so we eat up and then head back to the hotel to bundle up in as many layers as possible. Peter takes us to the lodge at the base of the Snow Mountain, where hundreds of Chinese, all in identical red and yellow down parkas (rented for the day) are waiting. We wait, and we wait, and we wait. It is after ten and we are cold and tired. Around 10:20, we board a shuttle bus that takes us a few hundred feet up the mountain, where we wait, and wait, and wait, with the same hundreds of Chinese in parkas. We are at about 3500 meters above sea level. I am cold, tired, and on less oxygen. And my sneakers are getting wet as it continues to rain. Why are we waiting two hours to go up a mountain in the rain, when the mountain is covered in clouds and we won’t be able to see a thing??? To make matters weirder, we are surrounded by TV screens playing this almost cult like music video of some anthem to the mountain. The video was on the shuttle bus, in the waiting rooms, everywhere. For a place that outlaws religion, it seems to be putting a lot of effort into deifying this mountain experience. Apparently the gondola cannot go the summit, because that is where the gods live. Sometime after 11, we get in a gondola and are whisked up the mountain, to about 4500 meters (13,500 feet for all those who are math-challenged) above sea level. This is as high as I’ve ever been. I get off the gondola and immediately am dizzy from the altitude. It is snowing like crazy, almost white-out. Can’t see anything, it is cold, we are unprepared with the right clothing, and now feeling nauseous and dizzy. We stay long enough to take a few photos and head back down. Really disappointing. A better guide would have suggested that we do this another day and hope for better weather. I am not happy. Peter, our guide, does not seem to understand much English. He does not answer questions we ask, and does not give us much explanation of what is going on.

After we thaw out, we drive to Suhe village that is full of tourist shops selling local crafts. Yunnan Province is home to 25 or so of China’s 56 ethnic minorities. This area is mostly Naxi, a matriarchal society. Many of the shopkeepers are wearing traditional clothing, some seem authentic, some, who wear them over jeans with Adidas sneakers, look a bit more contrived. The village is beautiful, despite the artificial feel to the shops. We eat lunch in front of a fire as an elderly mason puts stones around the fireplace. Peter has ordered for us and is a little too conscientious about bu la, and the lunch is actually bland. So now we say xiao la: a little spice. We head back to the hotel and the sun begins to shine, and for the first time, I begin to appreciate what a glorious setting we are in. The city is surrounded by mountains, breathtakingly beautiful snow-capped jagged peaks. Man, I wish we had done that mountaintop trek now instead of earlier in the day!! I go across the street from the hotel to the Tibetan restaurant and sit on their second story porch, order a giant pot of tea, and soak up the sun and the street scene below: women in minority costumes, Li, Miao, Bi and Naxi, are coming into the village selling vegetables or other products. The man in the shop across the street is pulling taffy, which I later learn is very potent ginger candy. I am in heaven. Even though the old village part of the city is mobbed with tourists, sitting on this roof deck, I feel apart from that and try to take in the natural environs of Lijiang. I take a walk around, trying to scope out a good restaurant, but strike out. We end up eating dinner at the Tibetan place. After dinner we walk around and lo and behold, I bump into one of my students from Renmin, a Japanese girl named Keiko. Small world! We walk further into the heart of the old village and a group of young men crank up a boom box with Tibetan music and the entire square is filled with young and old doing a Tibetan “square dance” of sorts. This is the same song and the same dance that Stephen and I danced to at the Tibetan restaurant in Beijing our first week here. There it seemed totally contrived, but here it seems more authentic. There are bars and tons of restaurants that I missed earlier. The bars are full of folks in ethnic costumes doing this whirling dervish sort of dance. Great fun! We walk to the other end of the village and see a fire burning outside a restaurant and folks standing around it, little kids are dancing to the karoke type ethnic garbed singer inside. Old women in traditional garb are chatting with family. A lovely scene. We head back to the hotel for a sleepless night. Katie has picked up a cold and is sniffling and blowing her nose all night, the heater turns off and on with a real rattling noise, and the guests in the upstairs room sound like a herd of elephants (which for some unknown reason, Stephen knows the Chinese word for – xiang - not to be confused with banana – xiang jiao). We have a good laugh trying to figure out ways he can use his new vocabulary.

Wednesday April 30

Have a relaxed morning getting up and out. We take a walk north of the Old Town of Lijiang to the Black Dragon Pool. It is the loveliest park I’ve ever been to. The pool is a series of ponds and streams broken up by nice little foot bridges and pagodas with the Snow Mountain off in the background. The pools are full of fish and Katie has a great time feeding them and trying to catch them with a stick. Art students are dotting the sides of the ponds trying to capture the vista, brides and grooms are here to be photographed, and children are running around being adorable in their split pants. At one point there is a band stand and a group of elderly musicians wearing traditional clothes are playing Naxi/Dongba music on Chinese instruments like the erhu, a two string violin-type thing. The temperature is perfect, the azaleas, roses, wisteria and peonies are all in bloom. Heavenly. The only problem is, I’ve picked up a case of traveler’s intestinal bug and feel lousy. I am not interested in eating and go back to the hotel for a nap. Katie and Stephen go for lunch and ice cream. At 3 I head out with Katie to do a little shopping. She gets a new school bag, and I buy a few gifts. I then sit in the lovely courtyard of our hotel, surrounded by orchids and lilies and wonderful Chinese/Naxi architectural details, enjoying my book. This is so pleasant; I want to move in permanently. For dinner, we go to restaurant row. I am still dealing with a stomach bug so don’t eat much, but what I do eat is delicious. Gung Po, chicken with peanuts, is becoming a staple. We are sitting beside a stream that runs through the town and every once in a while a guy with a guitar and boom box amplifier stops buy to serenade us with the same folk tune. I think it is some rendition of “I left my heart in Lijiang”. We walked around the village, learned more about Dongba, the pictographic writing that the Naxi people created, as well as paper making, another local Naxi craft. The old village is a tourist trap (mostly Chinese with a smattering of Europeans and Japanese – very few Americans), but it is still charming somehow. Stephen has an 8pm call back to the States, so Katie and I continue to walk around, while he goes back to the hotel. It begins to drizzle, so we head back too. In our hotel, there are National Geographic black and white photos of the Naxi, probably taken in the 1940s and 50s; it was not so long ago that this was a primitive mountain tribe isolated from the world. The culture shock the older residents must feel --seeing guys with boom boxes and spike-heeled women wearing gobs of make-up --meandering around their village must be staggering. I really want to talk to the old folks of China, and am so frustrated with my lack of Chinese…although here, I’d need to know the Dongba dialect, I think, in order to talk to some of the elderly here. Another night of sniffles, noisy heater, and elephants upstairs….other than that this hotel, San He, is charming, really. Note to self: next time, get an upstairs room.

Thursday May 1st. National Holiday in China, Labor Day.

I headed out early to see if I could see the snow mountain without cloud cover, but to no avail. The sky is blue, but the peak seems to be perennially covered in clouds. A building that had been under construction day and night next to our hotel was completed, and ready for business. It had no walls three days ago and now this gorgeous restaurant is open for business. Amazing!

We met Peter and the driver and headed to Tiger Leaping Gorge. Peter told us it would be a three hour drive over rough roads and we all groaned. My stomach was already upset and the thought of jumping up and down for three hours was unappealing, but we went anyway….and I am so glad we did. The drive took us up over a mountain, on a winding switchback road. Like all mountain roads, this was precarious, and even more so in China, where there are no guard rails or speed limits posted. To make matters worse, the better mountain road was closed for paving, because this is the road that will hold the Olympic torch run in June. Everything in China is getting fixed for the Olympics. To underscore how dangerous the road is, we passed a crowd gathering along the roadside with the police where we were told a minvan had just gone over the edge and was submerged in the river below. At least one person was dead, according to Peter, who gets updates from the government via text messages on his cellphone -- in this case, warning everyone to be careful. So we took an extremely pot-holed and bumpy road up the mountain and back down again. The scenery was spectacular. The valleys and hillsides were a patchwork of neat plots of farm land, some terracotta colored red clay, others bright green with vegetables or gold with wheat, and others with these beautiful purple flowers that are apparently a plant that is fed to livestock. Nestled against the hillsides every few miles were these little hamlets of red peat brick houses. And the backdrop for this spectacular vista are 13,000 foot snowcapped sharp peaks where the Yangtze River originates. At one point we stopped to pee at the first bend in the Yangtze River, and it was a very shallow silt-brown, with river stone islands all around. The “bathroom” was the worst I’ve seen in China, really an outhouse, no walls for stalls, no wall for privacy, just a peat, clay fly covered pit. My stomach was really in trouble so when we stopped for lunch I could not eat. I was sure I was going to lose it, but we then took a long walk along the Yangtze and I felt much better. We walked along the river on this pathway carved into the side of the mountain. Every few hundred yards, a guard was posted to yell in a bullhorn for us to walk close the mountain so that we would not get hit by falling rock. There was ample evidence that this was a real possibility. In several places, they have carved long tunnels into the mountain, through absolutely gorgeous white marble, to keep us from getting beaned by boulders. After about 40 minutes, the Yangtze narrows through this gorge where a huge boulder has fallen mid-stream. The legend is that a tiger leapt from one side of the river to the boulder, to the other side….thus the name Tiger Leaping Gorge. This gorge is deeper than the Grand Canyon and the Three Gorges (near the new dam many hundreds of miles further east on the Yangtze). The vista is gorgeous, with snow capped peaks dotting the river on either side. Peter tells us there is plan to dam the Yangtze here to generate electricity. What a pity if it happens, but if the alternative is the filthy coal that has blanketed most of eastern China in a grey cloud, maybe it is a reasonable choice. The air here is clean, fresh, and brisk. The sky has been blue with big puffy white clouds for two days. I’d hate to see all that lost to coal. The walk has been very therapeutic for my stomach and by the time we return to the car about an hour and half later, I feel fine. The three hour ride back is much more enjoyable, although just as bumpy. The area we are driving through is populated largely by the Naxi minority group and most of the women are wearing traditional costumes of a blue hat, blue apron, and white belt criss-crossing their chest. In most cases, a basket is attached to their backs, and they are bent over their crops all day. Many have babies tied to their backs. I can see how the one child policy hits the rural poor the hardest. This is back breaking labor, and many of the people we see today are elderly women hunched over their fields.

We get back to the hotel and decide to eat at the brand new restaurant that opened next door. The menu is not in English, but the manager speaks English and orders for us. Yummy and spicy meat and potatoes, some sort of pancake, a green vegetable sautéed in garlic and soy sauce. Delicious! From there we opt to go to one of the two shows in town….a variety of show of Dongba/Naxi dance and music. It is a little too glitzy and Las Vegas to seem real, but some of it was interesting. One guy writes what is happening on stage in the Dongba pictograph alphabet and the audience guesses what each symbol means. Two older women sing some traditional songs and play traditional instruments and they seem genuinely committed to preserving their culture. The rest of the performers look like something out of American Idol with “Chinese characteristics.”


Stephen is not feeling well. He was up several times in the night with a queasy stomach. We need to check out by 7am to spend all day in transit. I feel sorry for him. I felt lousy yesterday, but at least I could just get out of the car and walk around. He’s stuck at airports and planes all day. We take the 40 minute ride to Lijiang airport and the area along the way is spectacular in the early morning light. Green terraced farms, red soil, blue sky, and snow capped mountains. I hate to leave and vow to return. We fly from Lijiang to Kunming, which takes less than an hour…and then hang around the NOISY Kunming airport for four hours. At the KFC, my new airport hang out, we run into two Korean students from my Chinese language class at Renmin! Small world. So now, I have been to the KFC in Changsha, Chengdu and Kunming….and never in the United States!

The flight home is bumpy, with the requisite incessant announcements that “we are experiencing turbulence”. We arrive back to 80 degree, smog-filled Beijing, to an apartment that smells of toxic paint fumes. But it is good to be “home” to a semi-comfortable bed, and a semi-working toilet! Lots of laundry and good night.

One thing that keeps bothering me is that the Chinese officialdom seem to care more about impressing tourists and the outsider rather than their own people. All the tourist traps are filled with excessive cautions about falling rocks, or hold the railing on the escalator, or beware of turbulence, but there seems to be little concern for conditions for workers putting in 20-hour days, sucking in toxic fumes, or welding without proper eye protection, or clean air and water. The Olympics has brought a better road to Lijiang, because the torch will go along it, yet, there were no guard rails on the other road that regular folks drive on, and someone plummets to his death. Much else that needs fixing in China for the benefit of the Chinese, goes without attention, but the stuff that the rich and foreign see are top notch. Strange priorities for a ‘communist’ workers’ state.

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