Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Past and the Future

This trip to Yunnan Province has been different from the other dozen or so trips we have made within China. I think the rural and remote nature of the area has been a striking difference to the other major cities. It has not been an easy trip, as the physical demands of the heat, humidity, sanitation and transportation have been challenging. Yet, I have learned so much about the minority groups that make up this area, and their way of life which stresses living in harmony with nature.

Being in these remote areas makes me think about the people that make up our world-their challenges, their aspirations, their hardships. As we travel, we encounter lifestyles and behaviors that are quite foreign and different from our own. Yet we share common hopes - to raise our children, saving our money so they will have the best education and a good quality of life. It makes you realize that it is a common thread that permeates much of the world, but the challenges people face in other countries are so much greater than our own. I think the challenges these people face as commoners is so great, as is the competition for survival and success. There are simply so many people competing for so little resources, that the sense of friendliness, customer service, and kindness that we see in our society is sometimes difficult to find among the masses. I see glimmers of change in the major cities, especially among the educated population.

Beyond the food, the scenery, and the museums, what is special, is the perspective we gain about people. I think that is what I take with me when I leave. Experiencing the world and its people makes me better understand why people see the world the way they do, and why they behave as they do. It is not possible to expect people in other countries to accept western doctrines and policies as their own.

What I find most heartwarming is the effort that Robert, Jen and Julia put in to trying to communicate in Chinese. It is empowering, especially for Jennifer, whose boldness has visibly developed in these past 2 weeks. There is an underlying strength that has appeared and that I hope will continue to be nurtured.

China changes each time we come here. A lot of the old gets torn down and much of the new looks the same. People in the cities are becoming more and more westernized and it is getting harder and harder to tell the difference between native and overseas Chinese when in China. The most colorful part of China still exists in its rural villages - the minority women in their traditional costumes chanting folk songs, and the rural farmers with baskets on their backs climbing the tiered rice paddies - I know in the passing decades, these too will be gone.

Trains and Hangzhou

We spent our final day in China, traveling by train to Hangzhou to visit West Lake and to enjoy a meal at a famous restaurant by the lake. Ray’s office had purchased one way tickets for us, and we were instructed to purchase the return tickets when we arrived at the Hangzhou station. It apparently is not possible to purchase the return portion at your point of origin. We chose to take the late morning train, even though we were told the morning train is cleaner and faster.
Less clean and less fast it was – a bit warm, somewhat dingy, and a little rickety.
We arrived in Hangzhou to 90% humidity and temperatures in the high 80’s. The sky was quite hazy and the moisture in the air looked like it was raining. The 5 of us negotiated our way down the wrong hallway, looking for the ticket office. Railroad personnel hastily pointed in the direction we needed to be, not wanting to be bothered to help. It reminded me of being at the train station 12 years ago, looking for our train and no employees or travelers would take the time to help us. Here we were, 12 years later, and people were still behaving in the same rude manner. We found our way to the main ticket hall where thousands of people were standing in lines, in front of 20 some ticket windows. Some had agents there, others not. It was packed and hot, not a pleasant place at all. We stood in the shortest line. I asked someone which was the right place to buy “soft seat tickets” and he said, “anywhere in this room”. I tried to ask a girl why this line was the shortest and she said, “I don’t know.” Turns out some of the windows were closed for lunch and the hours of operation were posted on big boards above them. I then walked to the schedule boards to try and figure out what the return times were. I asked 5 people to explain the boards, some ignored me, one told me to ask at the window, and one told me to read the board! At this point, Robert and Julia discovered a small room off in the corner where people were better dressed and looked like they had more money. Thank goodness, it was the higher priced first class ticket office. The travelers were so much kinder and more helpful. By then, we had figured out how to read the schedule, had found our train time and the transaction went smoothly. I sometimes wonder if I would have gotten better treatment had I been a blond, instead of being just a regular Chinese person. Perhaps, this goes along with Mazlov’s hierarchy of needs, and since ones basic needs need to be fulfilled before one can be generous in spirit, these common Chinese had not reached a level where they could be helpful to others. It puzzles me!

We spent much of the day in a very interesting silk museum, located in Hangzhou because it is historically considered the main site of silk manufacturing. In one room was an enormous loom that was used to demonstrate the art of weaving silk. Ray spent a lot of time trying ot figure out this loom, which consisted of many ropes and bundles of thread, the pattern of which was controlled by a man sitting at the very top, about 12 feet high. The colors and weaving was done by the woman seated in front of the loom. Looking in the mirror below her work, you could see the face of the fabric, a beautiful design of dragons and flowers. They say that the loom and process was developed by a Frenchman named Jacquard and follows patterns of light and dark, the forerunner to the earliest computers. We learned about the silkworm and the process of degumming the cocoon and removing the threads of silk. The large map on the wall indicated the 3 earliest silk trade routes-the northern route through Shandung, the more commonly remembered one from X'ian to the middle east, and the maritime one.

Leaving the museum, we walked to West Lake. I felt so sticky, I was ready to peel my clothes off, and regretted wearing waterproof pants and hiking boots. I was all prepared for rains, but it didn’t rain and I was hot! As we walked around the lake, we were harassed by a driver trying to get us to ride in his private car. He followed us down the path until Jen turned around and yelled at him in Chinese. Hurray Jen! He was so taken aback and muttered, “so fierce.” We laughed so hard at his reaction and Jen’s boldness!

We had dinner as planned at Louwailou, a restaurant that is over 200 years old. Their specialty is beggar's chicken, cooked in an oven for 5-6 hours, wrapped in lotus leaves, plastic wrap, more lotus leaves, and finally encased in mud. It is broken open with a mallet and the layers are cut open to reveal a tender and flavorful chicken.

Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lijiang is about as close to the western border of China as we will probably ever venture. Flying in, we were treated to a scene of bright green mountain chains with small villages hidden among the canyons. Lijiang sits in a valley surrounded by mountains. The area is inhabited by 22 minority groups, of which about 60% represent the Naxi clan, a traditionally matrilineal society. We arrive on a beautiful day with blue skies and white puffy clouds. Given the expectation that this is monsoon season, we decide to see as many sites as we can in the afternoon. The hotel arranges a driver for us, who is prepared to take us to Jade Snow Mountain, the top of which reaches 13,000 feet. We make a stop for snacks and another for canisters of oxygen, which he advises us to take. Remembering how we felt in Lhasa, we don’t argue. He will drive us to the park where we will ride a cable car up to the peak and then walk the remainder of the way. The drive up is beautiful and we pass small villages and green fields. As in all places of China, there are crowds of people, and after purchasing tickets, we wait for our bus number to be called. The bus takes us to the cable car, where another long line awaits, not unlike the queues at Disneyland. We wind our way around and around, watching the tv sets showing a music video of Prince. A video of the tourist site would have been more appropriate, we thought. The cable cars which seat 6 takes you up the mountain through a beautiful valley. At the top, a walkway consisting of wooden paths and stairs leads up to the peak. This is where the oxygen comes in handy. It begins to rain, hail then pour. It is around 20 degrees and downright miserable. We are shrouded in clouds and I begin to wonder if this climb is worth it, and twice almost turn back. We can see dirty glaciers along the side but not much else. After about 30 min. we reach the top. Lo and behold, the skies clear and the clouds drift by. The view of the valleys and mountains below is spectacular. We are standing at an elevation higher than we have ever been before and what a feeling that is!

Tiger Leaping Gorge
The following day, we venture out to Tiger Leaping Gorge, a river gorge that sits between the back of Jade Snow Mountain and Habba Mountain. It is a 2 hour drive on a winding narrow road. I try to convince the driver that perhaps we could go to the section of the gorge that backpackers frequent; the area that is a “rite of passage” for packers, but he is not convinced. He tells me the road to that section is closed due to an avalanche 40 days ago. I have read of a different section accessible by ferry and he proceeds to tell me that people die each year attempting to hike the gorge. He says he is responsible for our safety and we shouldn’t think about it. I tell him we are strong and hearty hikers, and he thinks I am nuts. So we end up walking the tourist trail out to the gorge. Workers are stationed along the path with megaphones, and they yell to you if you don’t stay close to the edge of the cliff. If you don’t mind their commands, their megaphones begin to play Jingle Bells!

It is an hour walk and the weather is quite warm. We reach the viewing platforms and look at the roaring brown waves below, which look like foaming cappuccino. It is not quite the scene that I had pictured, but is quite incredible all the same. I still wonder about the trail we did not take and wish we could have at least explored it up close to see what it was like. Though given the canyon was not as wooded as I had imagined it would be, I am sure it would have been a dusty and hot hike.

This trip has been much harder to navigate as the rural character of the area and the lack of ready transportation aside from a leased car, has made it challenging to be independent. Lijiang has no train or subway system. I would have liked to have hiked the green hillsides or walked along the farmlands, but to do so could have been unsafe and quite cumbersome. We made a last tour stop at a protected wildlife refuge along a lake. The lake is low this time of year and becomes a vast grassland. In the distant water, we can see hundreds of fishing nets in the process of being repaired. This lake fills up between Dec. and April, and migrating wildlife flock to the area. Our local guide, a young Naxi girl tells us about the area, and shows us the minority homes that have been constructed on the property to illustrate the differing cultures. Their water comes from the snow melt of Jade Snow Mountain and she tells us that recent winters have seen the water level rise approximtely 2-3 meters over the past 5 years. It occurs to us that we were seeing the effects of global warming in action. They were in the process of rebuilding in order to raise the height of all of their buildings. We tell her about global warming which she finds quite fascinating, and thanks us for educating her. After arriving home, we search the internet and indeed find articles discussing the issue of melting glaciers on Jade Snow Mountain.

Our last day in Lijiang was spent in the old town. Black Dragon Pool, where all spectacular photos of Jade Snow Mountain are taken, is currently a dry pond due to the drought. The drought has kept the weather good for us, but has left rivers and lakes dry and brown.

The old town area is a restored village built on many levels with canals running along the streets. It is charming, especially at night when the music from the bars flow out and the costumed waiters and waitresses dance to their local folk music. Like all “restored” ancient Chinese towns, it is lined with souvenir shops. We contribute our share to the local economy and then find a restaurant for a Yunnan dinner. In the evening, we attend a Naxi orchestral concert performed by local artists, the majority of whom are in their 70’s and 80’s. The ancient instruments are fascinating to see and hear. During the cultural revolution, the musicians buried their instruments to keep them safe. Being part of this show made me feel a part of the local culture and fortunate to be able to experience this as a local Chinese tourist would. This was the perfect ending to a very educational trip in the west.

Local Color

It is the children in the villages we pass that are the most interesting to watch. Children can occupy their time no matter where they live and how little they have. I saw a little boy around 3 years old, squatting happily on the sidewalk with a pile of dusty dirt in front of him, using his finger to make a road. Children in these rural villages would be astounded at the piles of toys that our children in the US have at their disposal. These family’s lives are so spartan and without any western toys. Passing through one village, the driver told us it was market day, and farmers were making their way to the lively street market to sell their crops and animals. There were no stalls, just cloth and plastic on the ground, piled with vegetables and fruit. We saw family after family, riding standing up in the backs of old rickety trucks, dressed up and going to market. The children had huge smiles on their faces and you could only imagine what a big weekly event it was. In the afternoon, we again saw these trucks, the backs piled high with baskets of fresh vegetables and fruit.

We were told that beginning this year, China now provides a free education to all children from kindergarten to grade 9. The standards and quality of education varies tremendously from school to school, and if parents want their child to attend a school outside of their neighborhood, they must pay tuition. High school and college admissions is highly competitive. Our driver told us that in the past few years, China has tried to push hard for students to attend college. Many students work extremely hard to get in to colleges with the expectation that an education is the ticket to a better quality of life. Unfortunately, high numbers of students are graduating to find that there are not enough jobs to accommodate all of them. Disappointment, depression and other mental health issues are on the rise. China is finding itself with too many educated and unemployed young people.

We have also learned that in the rural areas, China provides a set amount of land per family member to use in growing crops. The family can choose to plant the land and sell the crops for income, or lease the land and go into the city to work.
The government does not charge the family for use of the land. When one becomes elderly, they will depend on their child to support them. If they have no children, they are eligible for a small government stipend.

We were also told that the real estate market is booming and many people from all walks of life are investing in apartments and making a profit from them. New houses are being built in the outlying areas for residential and holiday use. This is leading to an increase in the purchase of cars, which have dropped considerably in price to make them affordable to ordinary citizens.


I have told Jen that China needs a nationwide editor for English; it would be a lifetime job to edit all the signs, tourist markers, and tour books etc. Signs such as, “When 200 feet and notice rock falling, please run around cliff.” “Blind person manssage.” “Kunming machine photo splendid company.” In our hotel room, Robert and Jen tried to read the pictorial book, which was was basically a stringing together of English words that in combination had no meaning whatsoever. The further back in the book you went, the worse it was. Most people in China still do not have a conversational level of English. Their mandate for all cabdrivers in Beijing to be able to speak the language by 2008 will be a challenge to overcome. We read a story about one driver who has hundreds of common phrases translated phonemically into equivalent Chinese words. He can prattle off these phrases with ease, but has no comprehension of them at all. Ray’s company driver in Shanghai has acquired quite a vocabulary of English swear words from TV and movies that he proudly spouts, to which Ray has told him he needs to be careful what he is saying!

Trying Not to Be a Tourist

Kunming and Guilin are cities where tourism is their major source of income. It is not surprising then that so many people are trying to make a dollar off of us, the tourists. We go into an electronics store to buy a video camera tape. They don’t carry that brand but one of the salesboys says he can get one in 10 min. He then runs to some other store, returns with a tape, which he sells to us without a receipt and most certainly has made a small profit from us. All transactions are negotiable, whether for service or product, and without taking the time to negotiate, one can expect to pay several times more than what the expected cost should be. At some point during our stay though, the whole process feels tiring and you begin to think that the twenty cents or ten dollars is not worth the effort. You can easily spend 15 min haggling over 20rmb which amounts to $3! Although it really represents the principle of the matter, the $1 gained means more to the vendor than it does to us.

There is also the constant question posed to us as to where we are from. It is
a mystery to many people as they say my Chinese is very “standard”. I suppose it means textbook like, as I do not speak with any local slang or local dialectical accent. But I am accompanied by what obviously is my family, half of whom speak Chinese but not well, and my husband, not at all. We are hesitant to say we are from the US for obvious reasons of getting cheated. Therefore, we have given a variety of responses consisting of, “Where do you think I am from?” “What, you don’t think I am Chinese!” “Perhaps I am from Korea.” “I flew over from Hong Kong.” “I live outside of this country.” “My mom is from northern China.” They are even more puzzled when they see Ray, as he looks Chinese, acts Chinese but doesn’t speak any Chinese. Most of the time, they think he is from Singapore. On one taxi ride, I said we had come over from Hong Kong and he proceeded to ask me about the political situation in HK, how the poor are now being treated, and whether the stories he had seen on tv were true! I think I blew my cover on that one.

The biggest source of embarrassment is in a restaurant, when the menu has no pictures. All of us study the menu in great detail, trying to combine our character recognition. Unfortunately, all 4 of us recognize the same basic characters (cow, chicken, egg, mushroom, vegetable, soup etc.) which doesn’t help much in deciphering the complex naming of Chinese dishes. We’ve done ok in some places, but in others have ended up with surprise plates of food. Waitresses often balk at having to describe all the vegetable dishes they have, especially when they have already told us to read the menu. I have devised a question system by which I ask specifically what ingredients are in the dish and how it is prepared. This makes me appear less stupid and more of a culinary expert. By asking whether it is braised, fried or steamed, and whether it is spicy, or what part of the animal it contains, I can usually gain enough information to figure out what the dish is. We also ask what the specialties of the region are and since we are from out of the area, this is a question that is better received.

We have found the food in western China to be quite greasy and the cooking to be less refined than in Beijing or Shanghai. We also found prices to be quite high compared to the larger cities. Yunnan specialties include Yunnan ham, steampot chicken, rice noodles, and babba, a fried pancake. We are not really sure where the fish comes from but suspect is is mostly river fish. I have given up worrying about what could possibly be in the food-toxic or whatever. I read on a listserve about rural farmers injecting red sugar water into watermelons to make them red and juicy. Only problem is, they were using nontreated water. It is just too much to worry about and I think I accept our fate regarding whatever we eat. Although we do try to eat in large restaurants that seem to have a large number of clientele. Walking down the street, I saw a dishwashing basin outside a food stall with the foulest looking water you could imagine!! However, there seem to be a fair number of very healthy looking elderly women and long bearded men in these towns and villages, so it can’t be all that bad!

Another of our greatest challenges in traveling in China is operating in a cash society. Our credit cards are basically unusable except in large department stores. We have found no restaurants on this trip that would take a credit card.
I was savvy enough this time to bring only American Express travelers checks as most hotels and banks will not recognize Citibank’s checks. We can only exchange $200 US a day and bills have to be clean, unmarked and in good condition. We have only seen one ATM that had the Mastercard, Cirrus logo on it. When shopping in Chinese department stores, each section is a separate vendor, so items have to be paid for individually. This results in your US credit card being rejected after 3 or 4 purchases. We seem to be constantly exchanging money and the trick is to finish your trip before running out of cash!! On this trip, restaurant prices seemed to be much higher, perhaps because we were in tourist areas, and our cash ran out quickly each day. Also, we were told that admission prices to local sites were scheduled to increase on July 1, some double the old rate. We tried to see as many as we could on June 30!

People in the US always ask about the toilet facilities in China. I am always tempted to take pictures of them as we have encountered just about every size, shape and condition. When you have to go, you have to go and I could write a book about washrooms in China. Squat toilets that flush are the norm in this area and I find it interesting that usually the upright toilet stall is left empty, the Chinese prefer to use the squat toilets, finding them more sanitary. Today at the beautiful new Shanghai train station where the interior glistens with glass and shiny metal, I walked in to the restroom and was hit by a strong odor. I reached for toilet paper in the wall holder which was empty. (one holder hangs at the entrance to the washrooms and you have to remember to get your paper before entering the stall, or you will be in trouble). As there were two women cleaning the washroom, I asked one of them if they had any paper. Her response was, “If there is paper it will be in the holder.” When I asked if she could fill it, she replied, “We will fill it when we are ready to fill it.” At one stop, our driver stopped at a “free toilet” which turned out to be at the very back of a long, long gift shop. This was a row of tiled shoulder height stalls with no doors. They resembled tiled troughs and I think were the worst we encountered. At one of the restaurants, Ray noticed that the water from the sink drained directly on to the floor, and in order to reach the sink in this little triangular room, you had to lean over the squat toilet. We all plan to claim that we have been running around the rural areas so that airport security will irradiate our shoes! Basically, if you plan to travel to China, don’t expect too much, you won’t be disappointed or surprised!!

Monday, July 02, 2007

Shoes and Dogs that Cross Streets

Shopping in Kunming was an eye opening experience. We spent much of the day walking around the city, going into department stores. Prices were surprisingly high and we saw very little that we felt was a worthwhile purchase. Toward the end of the day, we stopped in to Parksons, what used to be my favorite store in Shanghai. Wandering through the shoe section, we saw a huge selection of women's shoes, not unlike a large Macy's. Jen found something she liked, only $25US and needed a smaller size. The salesgirl had her try on a smaller size in a different color and said they would get the correct color for her. 30 min. later, it still hadn't arrived at which point, she revealed that it had to be picked up from the stockplace down the road by a man who had to ride a bike there. Unfortunately, the man in charge of the stock had gone to dinner and it was closed. He had to wait until the man returned before he could bring it back. Jen found another pair of shoes. Again, it had to be picked up. Did we want the man to wait for the other pair, before riding his bike to stockplace #2 for the second pair? We decided no as it would have taken another 30 min. We sent him to place #2 for the second pair instead. It makes you appreciate western inventory procedures and the ease by which we are able to obtain our goods! I told Jen she shouldn't try on any more shoes!

Street crossing in any city of China always means putting your life at risk. Early on, when we would visit, I would make sure to spot an elderly woman and walk close to her. There is safety in numbers and I figured I was safer in her shadow. One time in Beijing, the elderly woman actually grabbed me by the elbow and pulled me out of the way of an oncoming car! Now, my skills are a bit more refined and I am able to meander my way across the constantly moving traffic. It is not unlike crossing a stream by stepping on rocks, however the rocks are also moving. In Kunming, I found it particularly amazing to watch a small dog on a walk with his owner. She was pushing a stroller and the dog was off leash, as all dogs in China are. The dog walked a few paces ahead and would stop regularly to wait for the owner. When they reached the busy intersection, the dog crossed with all of the people, meandering among the people and the cars, just as the pedestrians did; it was a very interesting process. I immediately thought of Heidi, who has no sense of moving traffic, much less the skills to cross the street on her own. Having crossed streets in China, I always chuckle to myself when we talk about jaywalking across Charleston Ave. at work, where one car comes every couple of seconds!

It is amazing that I am willing to put the safety and well being of my family in the hands of a Naxi driver on a winding road full of old overpacked pick up trucks and buses. Obviously, driving in the middle of your own lane is a foreign concept; driving in the middle of the road is much more efficient, for one can see both oncoming traffic and whatever is in front of the truck in front of you! Honk your horn, and pass regardless of blind curves. If you pass quickly, you can usually dodge the oncoming car before it reaches your front bumper. Watch out for chickens crossing the road, farmers herding their cows down the street, people darting out, rocks sitting in the road, and the inevitable loads of whatever might fall off the trucks in front of you. We’ve ridden in cabs where drivers answer cell phones, eat, drink, pick at their teeth with a toothpick etc, but never miss a bit. I’ll bet they are great at video games!


We arrive midday in Kunming and the little bit of coolness and less humidity feels really good. We wander around the bird and fish market, which turns out has neither many birds nor any flowers. The stalls of souvenirs are somewhat interesting. We go to a tea shop and learn about Pu-er tea which this area is famous for. Pu-er is said to have many health benefits and there is young pu-er and older pu-er. The older tea has less caffeine, is aged longer and the longer it ages, the better it becomes. It should be stored where it can air. We also take a walk to a Muslim temple. The older part of Kunming is being destroyed and there is not much history to see. The newer city has been built around the the older area and resembles most any other city in China. We discovered that Fodors in China is not much use as far as restaurant recommendations are concerned. The highly rated restaurant did not answer their phone and none of the cab drivers had ever heard of it. The cab driver ended up taking us to a street that was a "restaurant row". We settled on a typical Yunnan place with low tables and Kindergarten size chairs. Food selection photos and ingredients were up at the front and Robert, the adventurous eater convinced me to order fried grubs among other local dishes. They came on a plate, heaped high with crispy larva skins, looking very much like larva! I ate them with lots of beer.

Getting to the Stone Forest was a mystery, since all the guide books had suggested taking the express train or bus. The hotel said there had not been a train for 2 years. Some boys in a local electronics store had told me to take the local bus but we could not figure out how and when they ran. We ended up reserving a minivan and driver to take us out there. It turned out to be a good choice since it was a long ride and we would have had trouble finding our way to the park. The stone forest was not as immense as I had imagined it would be, but quite an interesting sight all the same. There are paths that run in the forest and the maze of trails among the tall spires takes you up and down narrow staircases, fissures and caverns. We spend the next 3 hours winding our way around them. We do quite well until the very last 30 min. when we get hopelessly lost and keep coming back to the same signs no matter which way we go. After about 4 tries to get out, we finally run into an elderly worker who directs us to a dirt path that takes us immediately to the main road. What an adventure that was.

Our hotel recommends a very nice restaurant in a very old building that reminds us of mansions in the movies, with a wide courtyard and main gate. We have a terrific dinner and especially enjoy the assorted wild mushrooms. Walking back to the hotel, we detour through the large park and lake. It is full of local character- at one pagoda, a group of people are "jamming", playing an assortment of Chinese instruments. Further down the path, a small crowd is watching a woman singing Chinese opera while a man is dancing. A bit farther, a large group of people, young and old, are learning to do a line dance. The place is alive with ordinary people living a normal evening in Kunming and it is touching. I feel very much a part of the place, fully immersed in the hustle and bustle of life, and the calmness of the evening.