April 13, 2016


Whenever I encounter the very rare person here who speaks a little bit of English, I try to clarify the pronunciation of the place we are in. The very kind man, George, who operates the hotel in Xizhou didn't quite understand that I was asking to have the pronunciation clarified, so I'm not at all sure but I think the village is called See-ZHO, long o sound at the end. So this is as good a time as any to talk about saying words.

We know two words in Chinese: hello (ni hao) and thank you (xie xie, pronounced shia-shia). Of course I can do my best to get the pronunciation right, but most of y'all have heard me speak English: I have a thick accent. So getting the subtleties of the diphthongs right is beyond my thick old Texan tongue. And then there are village-specific dialects and slight differences in pronunciation that are even evident to my thick ear. Some people seem to say "knee how," some say "knee haw," and some "knee ha." Some slightly drag out the second word, and some say it with an air-stopping abruptness. I think someone even just said the last part once, just "haw." So I do my very best, and also try to say hello to as many people as I can. Usually I try to greet them first, but once in a while they greet me first -- and most often they speak Chinese, but it isn't completely unheard of to hear "hello" from older people. Once, we were walking through the village to the square (on which more in a minute), and a young woman passed us on a bicycle saying, "Hello! Nice to meet you!" I think we grinned for five minutes after that encounter. Little kids often love to say hello.

But usually it goes like this. In Xizhou and out in the surrounding countryside, we'll pass someone and Marc and I will say ni hao, and the person smiles broadly and says it back to us with a smile in their voice, too. Once in a while the person won't respond at all, but that's actually uncommon. Often they laugh a little, and most of the time the laugh seems to stem from surprise and something like delight that we greeted them in Chinese. Once in a while, though, the laugh has a different tone -- not malicious, but definitely a bit of laughing at our pronunciation. (That's OK....I laugh at my pronunciation, too.) One thing I have dearly loved has been looking into the eyes of the older women walking past as I greet them, and seeing their faces break into the warmest, twinkliest-eyed smiles. Gosh I have loved that so much.

So, to Xizhou. The place we stayed, Sky Valley Heritage Inn, is a traditional-style building, though it has two courtyards which is slightly unusual; most have one, though very large homes might have three, and there is one in town that actually has four. Like all the buildings in Xizhou, it is Bai (the minority of the area) which means specific roof styles AND a reflecting wall in the courtyard.

the outsides are always plain (though not all mud, like this one -- here they're often a bright white), belying
the gorgeousness of what's inside the walls.
And inside it looks like this. I was standing in the middle of the courtyard shooting the side of the
building we're staying in (bottom right door). Upstairs are big family suites. Every single time I
walked into the space and saw the building, I crouched my shoulders a bit, expecting
flying swordswomen to appear from above. That's old Chinese talk-story -- it lives in
Chinese culture first, and then movies were made of it.

When the hotel company wanted to buy the property, eleven families lived in the building (not all related). The
families had lived there since the Cultural Revolution, and they used the upstairs as storage and used the
courtyards for livestock and cooking. Negotiations with the families were  not going smoothly, and then
the government stepped in and offered them land to build new homes -- or else they'd just have to leave
without the land for new homes. One way or the other, the government supported the hotel owners so the families
took the deal.
Bai architecture includes something like this, called a "reflecting wall," and it's always white so it
reflects the sunlight back into the space. What a lovely idea.
We had three nights in Xizhou, and at first we thought it might be too much time for such a tiny place but boy were we wrong. We'd arrived around noon, so we spent the first afternoon and evening just walking around, getting to know the small town.

This is the middle of the square, and all around it are little noodle shops and restaurants, and
off the side streets are shops selling all kinds of stuff -- including one little shop selling milk popsicles,
since 1982! I had the chocolate milk popsicle twice, kind of hard and not creamy but so good.
I was still getting over the flu and didn't want lunch, but Marc navigated his way
through buying noodles from this woman, with a bit of help from another customer
who told us that the dish would cost 8CNY ($1.24). Some of the noodles were
good old white rice noodles, and some were this yellow gelatinous goop,
not my favorite at all. Marc just kind of pointed at the various things she spooned
in on top. He is always willing to try anything (well, almost).
and this is what he ended up with! YUM.
This orange paper bowl is ubiquitous around Yunnan.
There is a market every day, but it ended at 11:30 so we wandered around and eventually started trying to figure out where we would eat dinner. Our hotel served dinner, but it was kind of fancy food and we really prefer to eat where local people eat.

But you know. Chinese. Impregnable. We walked and walked and walked, checking out noodle stalls and little shops, looking for any place that also had pictures since there was absolutely no English anywhere. (Well, let me rephrase. There is no useful English anywhere. Randomly, a sign or shop will have a phrase in English, a translation of the shop name, maybe, and we can't figure out why! No one there speaks any English, and even the Tourist Desk had zero English.) We had information that there was one restaurant somewhere in town that had a partial English menu, which would've then allowed me to take a picture of the translations so we might just look for those same dishes elsewhere. But we wandered and wandered and just couldn't find it. And I have an app that provides a pretty large set of words and sentences in Chinese, but every time I've tried to show it to someone, he or she stares at it and just hands it back to me, bewildered. Useless, and not helpful for trying to translate the words I see, either. So we are just on our own in the dark, and most of the time that feels fun but sometimes it really, really doesn't.

In one part of the village is something called Linden Centre, which is partly a hotel and partly some kind of cultural site founded by a couple of Americans. The square makes some kind of reference to Linden Centre, but we never really figured out what it was beyond the hotel. So anyway, our first night after the failed attempt to find the other restaurant we just went back to the square, feeling kind of defeated and hungry. You have to think about what it would be like to sit down facing a menu with absolutely NO IDEA what anything was, not a single recognizable anything. Marc saw a couple of American-looking people at one noodle shop and sure enough, English-speaking Americans! The two guys worked at the Linden Centre and were fluent in Chinese, so they asked us what we like and then helped us order. We ended up with this:

I spooned in a wee bit too much chili, not that visible here, but it was so so good.
Marc didn't like his quite as much, unfortunately.
The next morning, after breakfast, we got our bikes and headed out toward the lake, with a vague sense of direction and a minimal map (and Marc's mapping app, which saved our butts on more than one occasion). It was glorious. Oh, just such a wonderful day. There was a cool breeze, but the skies were clear and the sun was warm. We rode through fields filled with mostly women working the crops. We rode through beautiful white-walled Bai villages, impregnable to what lay inside unless we passed an open door. Finally, we hit the lake, and a big parking spot for all the Chinese tourists who visit the place. Down one road we passed a giant Chinese tour bus, which explained the crowds in the area surrounding the parking lot.

These huge, heavy metal boats were outside most of the homes near the lake. They didn't have any
kind of flotation material inside, so if they took on water, they'd sink like lead balloons.
Strangely, we never once saw any boats out on the lake.
Another day, another bridal shoot. There's always someone whose
job seems to be fluttering the veil. Always.
We found this structure and parked the bikes and walked around. Lots of Chinese tourists.
Marc's panorama of the lake. He takes MUCH better panoramas than I do!
Here's one in a different place. I love his panos.
This grand door, decorated with peacocks, goes with......
....this rainbow-painted coffee shop.
We came across this random pagoda, apparently abandoned.
It was such a beautiful sunny day, but the mountain bikes wore us out so we rode back to the hotel to rest for a while, with a plan to return for dinner to a restaurant near the lake. When we were seated, the woman gave us each a package wrapped in a slick paper bag -- inside was a place setting, small plate, small bowl, chopsticks, and a spoon. When our dinner was served, she also brought one of those purse-sized packets of Kleenex, and we were grateful for that because there has been a singular LACK of any kind of napkin everywhere we've been. In Vietnam they often have a roll of toilet paper, or a stack of tissue squares, but there has been nothing here. So purse-sized Kleenex? Yes please.

See why we picked the restaurant? PICTURES of food on the wall!
Mine wasn't what I thought it would be, and I left the pork, but it was yummy.
Marc's looked just like the picture, so at least he wasn't surprised.
The next day we hit the market right after breakfast, and had our usual great time there. We dearly love walking through markets, and have our short list of favorite ones.

Now that's a radish. See my shoe below, for scale?
custom meat chopping, kidneys on the shelf below.
here's a panorama of the market
I liked peeking into people's baskets to see what they bought. Easy, since I'm so tall.
the babies are strapped on TIGHT.
OK: See her headwear? That's another of those 70s-southern-bridesmaid-type
hats, and she has it propped on top of her traditional headwear. I saw this over
and over and over, and it always tickled me.
After the market we headed out on our bikes again, this time to go south along the lake. Instead of the mountain bikes we had the day before, we asked for ordinary street bikes since the landscape is flat and we are slow riders. It was MUCH more comfortable.

the sky just kills me here. it's always extravagant.
incense and cups of tea for the dead.
we pause and rest under a tree, with our old school bikes with baskets. which we loved.
We found this really pretty little park. And check out the mountains behind...
a moment's pause to check that we're where we think we are.
even though we really have no idea where we are -- we just
need to be sure we're not somewhere we think we shouldn't be.
it's fun to peek in open gates, you never know what you'll see.
we have no idea what this is.
as we were biking through this little village, we were directed to move aside --
the cow was bellowing and not too keen to be led. we were glad to scoot over.
just such magnificent architecture everywhere!
we'd drive past the walls of one large compound home after another and often
hear lots of mooing inside, and/or roosters. 
this is what it looked like to bike through villages.
or this
We had a magnificent, glorious day, and then..... we were in the final stretch, heading back to our hotel, when we rode up behind a big bunch of teenage boys on bikes. They took up the whole width of the road and refused to move or make space. Marc finally broke through and thought I was right behind him, but one boy kept trying to shove me off the road, into the fields below. A boy next to him would tug his sleeve, tell him (I think) to move over because someone was behind him, and he'd glance back at me and veer right in front of me. It was actually quite scary, and Marc was way far ahead, unaware of what was happening. We'd encountered groups of pre-teen girls, very mean, but they weren't threatening the way these boys were. I was never so glad to get back to the hotel.

Here are a couple of other random shots to share:

the bikes were often decorated with flowers and leopard print and other designs, but on occasion we saw this. WEIRD.
It was always nice seeing a minority person in her national clothes.
Marc brought me these super sweet cherry tomatoes for a surprise treat. SO good.
We ate at our hotel the last night, ordinary semi-fancy Chinese food, but the sky above me was so beautiful
it held my attention.
We had a car picking us up the next morning to take us to Shaxi, but first we had a Yunnan-style Chinese breakfast at our hotel:

So colorful, and good! That's a puffy bun (nothing inside it), and hot purple yam soup, and a bowl of noodles
with spicy pork stir-ins, and a bowl of chicken broth with a piece of neck in it (didn't eat that...), and some
delicious pickled vegetables and cucumbers. It was so so good.
We were really sad to leave Xizhou, which was surprising compared to our initial thoughts. So we climbed into the car, waved goodbye to George (who is from Shanghai, but whose wife and kids are living in Lake Forest, IL, which is immediately next to Highland Park which is where Marc is from, of all things.....), and headed north to Shaxi. 

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