April 18, 2016

Summing Up

What a silly post title, "summing up," as if I could sum up China. It seems to be the fashionable thing to say that even if you spent the rest of your life there, you could never really understand China (well, Anthony Bourdain said that, anyway). Apparently one of the most vivid things Chinese have historically believed is that it's easy to fool a foreigner, and there we were, extreme foreigners.

gorgeous morning light in Dali
I had the hardest time finding a good grasp of whether China felt foreign or not. In many ways it was the least foreign place we've traveled in Asia, and I once told Marc that aside from the language, I felt like I 'got' China and understood it. Maybe it was as simple as the fact that they drive on the same side of the road as we do, and driving didn't feel as impossible there as it does when we travel in SEAsia, where they seem to navigate by echolocation, horns honking constantly. China, on the other hand, was orderly, straightforward, quiet driving. (But slow.....even on the busy highways, all our drivers drove so slowly it was strange, and of course we don't know what the speed limits were.)

But on the other hand, we encountered almost no English at all -- not even an understanding of the word "English." Someone would be speaking Chinese to our bewildered expressions, we'd shake our heads and shrug and say "English" and they never seemed to know what that word was conveying; ordinarily, people say, "no English" but in China they didn't know that word. As always, it isn't that we expect English to be spoken everywhere, by any means, it's just that it was so striking how absolute the absence of English was (where we traveled, anyway). I don't know why that would produce such a profound feeling of foreignness, except for the implications of that fact, such as how hard it made it to eat, and how little we were able to pick up about the places we went. I often say that we travel like little children, having no idea what we're seeing, and that felt even truer in China than anywhere else.

now these were some great spicy noodles!
Another thing that added to the 'foreign' column was the complete absence of western tourists. Like, NONE. We'd be in touristy places, even, with hundreds of people, and not see one other obvious westerner. Some of the Chinese or Asian people we saw may well have been tourists from the US, but if so they didn't speak English in our hearing. And one of the most startling experiences that added to the foreign experience happened as we were coming into Guilin on the first day -- I still have to ask Marc about it, to be sure it happened. The flight attendant said that no newspapers were allowed to be brought in, so everyone needed to leave their newspapers on the plane. Of all the places we've traveled, that has never happened.

"Summing up" is also silly if I now think I've seen China, because we saw such a tiny bit of it -- and only southern China. No big cities, and we have no desire to see the big cities, either. I can sum up our experiences of two places in Guangxi, and four places in Yunnan, and as long as I'm summing up those experiences, I'm on solid ground. Maybe. One of the funniest things about looking back at our trip is how much I simultaneously LOVED it, and how little I came away with in terms of understanding. When Marc and I travel, we don't really like to hit the famous "must-see" places; instead, we like to walk a lot, go to the markets, eat where people eat, and try to get a feeling of a place in that way. Whether we do or not, really, it gives us a feeling that we understand a place, that we have a sense of what it would be like to live there. I'm not sure, now that I'm home, that I really have that sense.

This, I will NEVER forget.
We went into the trip with hesitation and a bit of anxiety, worried that we might really dislike China. Every time we've encountered big groups of Chinese tourists in our travels around SEAsia, they've been so loud and taking-over; when we were in Siem Reap, for instance, at Ta Prohm, we waited and waited for huge hordes of Chinese tourists to leave so we could get close enough to see some of the ruins and finally we just left. I have a long and deep fascination with China, as I had with India, born of literature and books, and hoped desperately not to feel permanently disconnected from that by a bad experience.

But we enjoyed it, a lot. From the very beginning, from our first moments at the first hotel in Guilin, by the lake, we loved it. The places we went were so beautiful, such breathtaking landscapes. We have a particular fondness for markets and villages and places with little boats, so that is the China we sought, and for the most part, the China we found. Our experiences with Chinese people were mixed; if we were paying (at our hotels, for instance), they were very friendly and helpful and warm. For the most part they were utterly indifferent to us, though, and that's just fine. I was anticipating a possibility that because I'm so tall and light-skinned I'd stand out in a noticeable way, but that didn't seem to be the case (even though, literally, I could stand flat-footed and look out over a sea of people's heads, almost always). The high-school aged people we encountered were often quite mean and even cruel. Of course it's hard to know how to interpret people's emotional responses, but we often felt like they disliked us . . . and maybe it's nothing more than the old "easy to fool a foreigner" contempt. And it's also possible that were we in big cities, this would've been different.

One very notable difference between China and Vietnam, especially, was the presence of old people. When we're in Vietnam, it's always striking to us, no matter how often we go, that we don't see very many old people. When we first went to Vietnam in 2005, we read a statistic that 65% of the population was under the age of 35. All those wars, all that slaughter. But in China, I think we saw as many old people as middle-aged people, and it was kind of wonderful. So many ancient-looking Chinese women I encountered, almost all walking, giving me a chance to look at them and say hello, and hear their delighted hello back to me. Ni hao. I had an easier time with that than Marc, perhaps because women are more open to other women, I don't know.

incredible produce everywhere
Another notable thing we experienced was the overwhelming amount of food being grown. I've been re-reading Paul Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster, an account of his trips by rail through and across China in the late 80s, when Deng Xioping was remaking China in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, and he commented on this too. He noted that there are very few trees left because you can't grow crops in the shadows of trees. I felt like the Chinese must be master farmers, because every possible bit of land was shaped into beautiful fields of crops, gorgeous gardens outside a house or village. Every possible square inch. When we were riding bikes around Xizhou, the fields were full of people -- morning to night -- crouched over planting or tending or harvesting crops . . . and they are beautiful, if they're the same ones we always saw in the markets.

One of my connections to China comes through Maxine Hong Kingston's incredible book The Woman Warrior, which I also re-read while we were in China and that was quite an emotional experience. Being a girl in China has historically been a pretty awful thing to be; boxes of clean ash were kept next to a woman in labor, in case it was a girl -- in which case the baby could just be smothered in the ash and killed immediately. Kingston says the character for 'girl' is the same as the character for 'slave.' I've read that book dozens of times and was always moved by the easy and constant contempt the culture has for girls, but reading it IN China, looking at the women who grew up with that kind of constant, constant, CONSTANT contempt, it was very hard. China is the country where women's feet were bound -- how dangerous women must be, to have to be hobbled like that.

I was so happy in Shaxi!
Our last couple of nights in Hong Kong were a bit overwhelming for me, and I hate to say it but I did not like Hong Kong at all. I guess if I hadn't lived in NYC, I might have been dazzled by it (though it's true that Hong Kong at night is extraordinary, especially from the water). Kowloon is extremely crowded and overwhelming, and Hong Kong is great if you want to shop at Cartier and stores like that, but otherwise it's a big, busy city and it wasn't my cup of tea. It didn't help that the weather was looming and quite heavy and I had such an extreme headache our second day that I couldn't even leave the hotel. The public transport there is remarkable, as everyone always says. We never got any food that was better than mediocre, but with one exception that was true in China, too. The people in Hong Kong were quite helpful and nice to us, giving us directions with generosity and smiles. I imagine that my experience of Hong Kong was heavily shaped by the terrible headache I had, but at the same time I don't personally feel a big desire ever to go back.

The URL for this blog is "China finally," which reflects our long hesitation to go, and our decision, finally, to go ahead and visit China. I'm very glad we did, and I have so many beautiful memories of being there, of seeing the various places we visited, and of traveling together. I'll always remember bicycling around Yangshuo and Xizhou, and how exceptionally sweet and wonderful the air smelled in Yangshuo, of orange blossoms and jasmine; I'll always remember that bamboo raft trip among the karst mountains; I'll always remember the tiny little villages we found in our wanderings, and how beautiful so many of them were; I'll always remember the noise and shattered red paper of Tomb Sweeping Day(s); I'll always remember freezing in Shaxi; I'll always remember how it felt to walk around Dali; I'll always remember walking with Marc around the lake in Guilin and having that moment of connection with the woman who invited me to join the group dancing that one morning; I'll always remember our delicious meal the last night in Shuhe Old Town at Number One Restaurant; I'll always remember riding the night ferry from Lamma Island back to Hong Kong, and then a second ferry back to Kowloon and seeing the dazzling light show of the dramatic Hong Kong skyline.

A woman Marc knows advised us to take a roll of toilet paper with us, which we dutifully did and never once (obviously, probably) needed, but I will always remember, and will advise you, that napkins are almost never available in any form, so you might want to take paper towels along.

I really LOVE this picture so much, and
I so love traveling with Marc, the very
best travel partner I ever could have.

I'm not sure we'll return to China, though I would certainly be glad to! I gather the north of China is extremely different in every way from the south; one thing about China is the dominance of all the minorities, and their influence on the various places, and if nothing else the landscape and minority groups are different in the north. Our visas are good for 10 years......

April 14, 2016

Lijiang / Shuhe Old Town

Lijiang is an ancient city in northwest Yunnan, and an important spot on the old trade route to Tibet, called the Tea Horse Road. Where Xizhou and Shaxi were home to Bai people, Lijiang is home to the Naxi, who have close connections to Tibetan people. The old center of Lijiang is a UNESCO World Heritage City, but we didn't go there. Instead, our sweet hotel was just outside of Lijiang in another old center called Shuhe Old Town. The woman who owns and operates the hotel said that the buildings in Shuhe have been here many hundreds of years. It's charming in its way, which is a little bit too Disney for our taste. Partly it's pretty heavily curated, and partly it's that the cobbled streets are lined with one shop after another after another after another, all selling similar things: tea, clothing, yak meat, jewelry, leather goods, flower pastry, and restaurants. There are no tiny noodle stalls here, as in Xizhou, it's not that kind of place. Every little tea shop, coffee shop, or restaurant featured a guy playing a guitar -- and they were all quite good, their voices were beautiful, the music sometimes so beautiful it made my heart ache.

We were only here for two nights, and we mainly just walked around town, ate, walked around town, ate, and slept. So I don't have very many stories from Lijiang but I do have some really good photos:
breakfast in the hotel was in this lovely library space, surrounded by tall windows
The owner is a woman from Singapore with a salty attitude. I suspect
she is responsible for this little sign.
The garden in front of our hotel -- also the gathering spot in case of earthquake.
the mirror in the bathroom was SO LOW.
Again there was almost no English anywhere, although the women in the hotel did speak English very well, a real treat. Mao Mao, the lovely young woman who helped us from beginning to end, was just so kind and helpful, and I'll remember her a long time. Also, once in a while a shop sign had an English translation, although I think some surely missed the boat.

OK -- I believe you! Absolutely!
I guess American food = SPAM here? Better than McDonalds, I guess.....
They are just souvenirs. Hardly amorous-feeling-inspirational.
Quality Medicines. Reasonable prices.
I could take a few pictures that would provide a completely inaccurate image of this little town -- it would look rustic, old, not completely touristy, and I would be entirely misleading. We did see a couple of western people here, but for the most part the streets were choked with Chinese tour groups, each wearing its own color baseball hat; small groups being driven along in horse drawn carts; young people having a day out; and -- of course -- bridal-type people having their photos made. Just today alone I saw three different bride and groom pairs, she always holding up a long train of a lacy dress and he always in a sharply stylish very skinny suit with pointy, shiny shoes and no socks and a pair of cutting edge style glasses. Still, I do think people live here, and work their gardens. People come from the nearby villages to sell produce. It's such a mix, hard to capture very well without misleading. We stayed here just long enough . . . one day more would've been way too much.

this place featured animal skulls on the front -- above the red lanterns. huh?
That distant mountain is so different from all the others;
instead of being rounded and tree-covered, it's sharp and rocky
and topped with snow.
We stopped for a drink, just to people watch.
Lots of prayer flags scattered around town
Not sure of this dude's story; he sat on his horse with a very stern face for a VERY long time.
We hiked up the mountain behind the old village and saw these little wildflowers.
I guess this is an issue?
And this -- no washing here. I loved that the message was provided three ways, pictographs, Chinese, and English.
This river runs through town, and is the primary water source. SO pretty, and the water was crystal clear.
Maybe because there is no washing allowed.
I don't know why it surprised me, but there were lots of pink roses.
the restaurants were often quite beautiful.....
like this one, too.
Another shot of the river through the old town.
Sharing the narrow cobbled streets with horses meant also avoiding piles of horse poop,
which just added another hazard alongside the spitting.
See just how clear the water is?
In addition to several yak meat stores, there was this Tibetan restaurant.
For all its tweeness, the old town really can be gorgeous.
Both nights we were here, we ate at a fabulous placed called Number One Restaurant. The place itself was just about as charming inside as it could be, and the food was sooooooooo good, the best we ate in China by far. We couldn't even think of a distant second.

It's a standard interior courtyard, but they covered it with glass so it could be used year-round.
And then they hung petunias in baskets, which just gave such a cheery feeling.
and lovely cloth lamps next to the petunias, and prayer flags.
and plants and books tucked wherever they could fit them in.
On our first night there, Marc's dish was Sichuan-style pork and scallions, and was delicious. I didn't quite take into account what they might have meant by tea tree mushrooms WITH dry chilies, missing the possibility that the chilies would be more prevalent than the mushrooms. I tried nobly to eat the peppers but had to bail after about 20%. (The second night we saw others had ordered the same dish and they didn't appear to have eaten any of the peppers.)

Marc's dish
CHILIES!!!!!!! (with a few little mushrooms)
and bamboo rice, which was quite sticky and bamboo-ey. :)
My meal was so light and unsatisfying, we went in search of something extra and landed at a "Parisian bakery," where I got a "tarte tatin," a "tarte citron," and Marc got a couple of cookies. (No matter how hard I try, and I do keep trying, I just never like Asian desserts.) Marc was so happy with his dinner that we left with a good impression of the place, my dinner notwithstanding. After a mix-up with our hotel about dinner the second night, we decided to return to Number One and my eyes are still kind of rolled back in my head. I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a meal that much!

A beer from Dali, beautifully named Wind Flower Sun Moon. It was really like water
with a little squeeze of lemon, and I think someone waved the dictionary definition
of "alcohol" near the bottle, but that was fine with me.
the very best water spinach with garlic I've EVER had.
these mushrooms were AMAZING.
Clearly, we were satisfied with our meal.
The Number Two Number One dog -- there's a much bigger collie that
always walks around the restaurant, the Number One Number One I suppose,
and  a cat that lounges around on the seats.
Dang that was a good meal. I'm still saying that out loud while I write.

We have had such a wonderful trip.
In the morning we head off to Hong Kong -- a long day of travel, stopping over for too long in Kunming (because even 30 minutes is too long in Kunming), so this is farewell to our time in mainland China, and what a beautiful time it has been.


When I think of Shaxi, I'll think of one word: cold. No wait, two words: cold and beautiful. No, wait, three words: cold, beautiful, and mountains.

I'd add 'flu' into the mix but I'd like to forget it; poor Marc got some kind of 24-hour flu blast as we arrived in Shaxi, complete with pretty good fever and chills and body aches. Since it was also FREEZING and raining, at first it was hard to tell that he was sick, because as soon as we checked in, we both ran for the bed and piled on the blankets, shivering and teeth-chattering. The drive from Xizhou was spectacular, taking us up and up and up, winding up the beautiful mountains to the crest, and then dropping slowly past one gorgeous valley after another. Unusually (really, why??) I was wearing flip-flops and the driver had the car windows down so by the time we got there, my toes were completely frozen but I was in pure awe of the landscape.

As always, the driver had a hard time finding the place, driving past it up into the tiny tiny little village, asking one person after another. Finally we backtracked a bit, and there it was: The Old Theatre Inn:

the view from below, but not taken the dark, rainy day we arrived
we drove past it when we were coming in
We sat in the little waiting area while we were being checked in, shivering and drinking tiny cups of lukewarm tea and nibbling delicious little ginger cookies (I'd have loved some steaming hot ginger tea, which we've gotten previously), and this was the view:

BRRRRR....cold rain outside. But all the doors had these ingenious screens
that closed with magnets. I want a set for my French doors in Austin!
The rooms are not in the theater, but rather in the buildings in the courtyard, which used to be a school, apparently. They're small and dark, but that felt good since it was so cold and wet outside. There was some kind of electric bedwarmer underneath the mattress padding, and that combined with the thick comforter and a super thick blanket on top finally got us warm enough. The rain took a pause too, so out we went for a walk, still not really realizing that poor Marc was actually getting sick.

those mountains, those clouds...
lots of crops being grown everywhere, and sometimes goats in the fields
rapeseed in bloom EVERYWHERE
a worker's pause
houses near the inn
just down the road from the inn a bit
this rock marks the entrance to the village behind the inn
plenty of wheat being grown
just extraordinary in every way
That's the old theater -- hundreds of years old, and restored. Performances are staged there some evenings.
restaurant upstairs, lobby below
a brief moment of sunset color, shortly swallowed up by clouds
Marc was starting to feel worse, and it was getting dark and cold, so we went back to our room to warm up, and then upstairs to the inn's restaurant for dinner. Pumpkin ginger soup and some kind of chicken, not at all memorable in any way, but I met my dear old friend and was happy about that:

I always enjoy trying the local beers when we travel but was not really impressed by any of the Chinese beers. I'd
decided not to have any more beer and then saw this on the menu, my very favorite beer anyway:
Beerlao, the beer of wholehearted people.
We went to sleep early, and Marc's fever was high enough that he felt extremely hot to the touch, so the night was not very comfortable for him, but by the morning he was feeling better, not perfect but well enough to go out for another walk after breakfast, before our driver picked us up at noon.

This little village is up behind the inn, and it was so beautiful I just wanted to stay,
Sunny and not as cold as the day before -- they are master farmers in rural China.
SUPER happy. So so so so happy.
a lone hyacinth
Marc felt better, for sure, but drained and tired.
altars for incense and offerings
village life
the busy center of the village, we think
these people are not poor -- their lives are hard-working, perhaps (don't know....) and they are surrounded
by such beauty
and food is grown everywhere possible
We had a driver from the village hired to take us to Lijiang ("Driver Yang," he was always called), so we checked out at noon and headed north to Lijiang. Shaxi = cold, beautiful mountains. I still agree.