Sunday, May 31, 2009

5/31 Forbidden City all to ourselves

Although the Beijing sun rose at about 4:30, and it was fairly light at 6, we decided to sleep in a bit longer. It turned out we overslept until about 8, so we got a late start to go to Tsinghua University. The first cab driver declined to take us and we never could guess at the reason. It took a few moments to find a driver who agreed to take us. The traffic was awful, since many people had been expected to work on Sunday because, after all, they had all had a three day vacation for the Dragon Boat festival (which I discovered was an official holiday tradition for all of only two years). It was indeed celebrated more vigorously down south where we had been a few days earlier. The fare was high (Y61), since the written Chinese characters I'd given the driver for directions sent us to the wrong gate, again, and I called Alex and had her talk with the nice driver, who told me "That's cool" in English. Not being able to use simple phrases in the local language like "Sorry about that" or "Excuse me" or "How's it going" or "Where can I wash my hands" makes a person feel impotent.

We felt like we'd met the days expectations of us after checking in at the foreign student dorm's front desk and showing our passports (our passports had never been through such a rigorous two weeks as they did while we were in China). Alex was video conferencing with Jamie as we walked into her Apartment 644. It was Jamie's Saturday night at about 9 pm, and she was telling us about how she was handling being alone just fine until Amanda would be off work and home at about 2 am. I did a few quick things on e-mail and we grabbed a cab for the Olympic Park
near the National Stadium (the Bird's Nest Stadium). The driver took us to the northernmost park entrance, which rarely was used by anybody, since the subway only ran to the southern entrance to the park. We were fine, because we'd hoped to be able to walk through the entire park, which only nine months after the Olympics was already beginning to be reclaimed by nature. It was very empty, something which could be rarely said about anything within Beijing's city limits. We explored a large deck overlooking a chain of interconnected ponds. As you'd expect to find in any part of the world, the koi heard us coming and all congregated near us in the hopes that we'd toss out a snack or two. A token older woman was performing tai chi in the shade behind us, and continued her ritual by the water's edge without word. It was wonderfully peaceful. As we walked southward, we did begin to see more people, mostly locals, who'd come to appreciate the varied flowering shrubs and trees. Several electric vehicles shuttled small groups from here to there, but the most memorable pair was a grandpa and his grandson strolling along with a fishing pole. He was singing a folksong in his most beautiful, loving voice as they walked over a bridge together, oblivious to the "foreign devils" watching them. I wish I'd pulled out the camera, but as had happened in so many other instances during our trip, I didn't want to intrude on something without a better understanding of its importance to my subjects. I've lost some great shots because of this sensitivity, but I feel good knowing why they went uncaptured.

After a bit of confusion (silly us, believing the park signage directing us to the south exit might be accurate), we successfully made our way past the much more grand southern entrance and the vendors (absent at the north gate) and after a few photos with the Bird's Nest Stadium as backdrop, entered the subway, still sparkling from its Olympic debut. We boarded our private car and I photographed through the open doors in each direction to the other sparsely occupied cars. In all, there may have been a dozen people on the 12:30
departure on Line 8 heading south. As Alex had warned us, that didn't last but a few stops, and by the time we'd transferred to two different lines, we'd been standing like sardines with the other thousands of early afternoon commuters. Alex wanted us to experience one of her favorite lunch places, even though it meant that we'd have to buy a few more subway tickets afterward to continue on, but we felt we could afford the additional 2 yuan. The featured treat was the "dessert" of purple rice stuffed into a hollowed out pineapple which capped off another of our very good stir fry meals. We never identified the intermittent mystery sound, which could have simply been the main burner from the kitchen stoves, but sounded more like a fire breathing dragon at an amusement park. Back on the subway, we rode to the Forbidden City / Tiananmen Square exit and started another marathon walk.

Alex amusingly kept track of each category of vendor as we were approached, again having reminded me specifically not to make eye contact or acknowledge them in any fashion. She walked with purpose past the menagerie to the innermost ticket booth, where we bought three tickets to enter the Forbidden City. We made for the national pottery collection, which was spectacular (the fact that it was air conditioned was an added bonus). I'd never seen as many six thousand year old vases and vessels which looked to be in such good shape. We lost track of time, and suddenly were faced with the fact that all would be closing in about 40 minutes. So we continued deeper and deeper into the realm of royalty, noting as we progressed the ubiquitous appearance of substantial thresholds, just like those we'd seen at every other archeological site in China. It seems the ancient Chinese didn't want to admit anybody who couldn't step over and clear an 8" wooden beam. Again, we felt eerily alone, for unlike even Alex's prior experience there, there were very few people within the Forbidden City (and later at Tiananmen Square, except for military sorts and a bunch of people who were likely plain clothes security people). The Forbidden City was virtually empty, with the exception of a couple of small tourist groups and a few stragglers like ourselves. [It reminded me of how Ghirardelli Square felt in March, 2003. We found very few people while on a visit there too. Turns out 450 Iraq war protestors had been arrested a couple of days earlier, so things had become very quiet in San Francisco. With the 20th anniversary of the uprising at Tiananmen on June 4, and recent media control and police supervision of the plaza by Chinese authorities, the explanation for how few people were there on May 31 might be self-evident.] We took photos as if we were private guests and didn't try to explain our good fortune. I'm hesitant to post the photos with my typical honest captions until Alex arrives home at the end of June.

Speaking of good fortune, did I mention how many lanes of traffic (4 of cars and 3 of buses and taxis) in each direction separated the Forbidden City and Tiananmen? [This was the fourteen lane street where the famous "tank man" stood to block passage of the army tanks.] Fortunately, there were pedestrian subways so that nobody had to cross the street, though pedestrian/vehicle challenges seemed to work safely everywhere else in China. We called Steven and needed to find a bus in order to meet up with him. After I noticed a dozen painted aisles on the sidewalk with (apparently) bus numbers for each lane, I suggested to Alex that we ask one of the many microphoned bus announcers standing at attention how we might best achieve our destination. She was very helpful, and before we could find the correct number on the sidewalk, we saw Bus 81 pulling in front of the many other buses curbside. We made a frantic dash to jump on, and conveniently I had a Y1 note for each of us. We stood all the way and luckily noticed that we'd reached our cross street, so we jumped off. Many of the conspicuous, large green and white street signs in this part of Beijing which Westerners might assume give you the cross street instead feature a vertical arrow which then indicates what street you are already traveling on. Upon reflection, it was a useful device for those of us who weren't sure if we were indeed traveling north or east. The signs for the cross streets were less noticeable, but I credit Alex for preventing us from taking the bus back to the Great Wall.

Alex wanted to walk along the north boundary of the Forbidden City in order to show us the moat which originally surrounded the entire complex (but was no longer visible from the main entrance). I couldn't help but imagine the multiple lines of defense which would have made a successful attack throughout most of history all but impossible. I pictured archers with powerful crossbows on top of the walls within the moat, and was fairly confident that few people had been crazy enough to even try to scale the smooth sides after a midnight swim. A couple of rickshaw drivers with broken, but decent, English tried very hard to convince us to hire them, but I remembered one of the few phrases Alex taught me and said "gwong y gwong" which elicited a laugh and him saying "Just want to stroll, huh?"

That was exactly what we wanted, so they let us pass. Near the midway point of the northern border we crossed the street, heading north again, up yet another street to the entrance to a great park where we met Steven, who had just ridden his bicycle from work. We entered the very popular park and were greeted first by a display of miniature Gingko trees, done bonsai style, in various shaped planters. As we gwong y gwonged, we passed a number of musicians, some sitting alone playing stringed instruments (the Chinese erhu) and others just singing away a capella. Three older men had their own karaoke set up and were leading a group of seventy or so older park guests in a patriotic song in memory of fallen soldiers, according to Steven. It was an example of another of the countless things that you just don't see any more in the US, except in old musicals starring Bob Hope or Bing Crosby. These people all had soft, melodic voices, which together had some volume, but not a one had the distinctive growl of Beijing Mandarin. We were a little discouraged that Steven wanted us to yet again climb more stairs to ascend to the top of the temple, from which all of Beijing could be seen. Apparently, when the moat around the Forbidden City was built, all the dirt was piled on top of an old Mongol conqueror’s tomb, thus creating this wonderful hill and another opportunity for future tourists to climb steps. It was another one of Alex and Steven's recommendations which was top notch. We got to see the sunset on an atypically clear day over the capital city, and got a bird's eye view to the south over the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

We trekked back down, swearing once again that we would not climb any more tombs, walls, temples, or towers on this trip, and passed five older folks kicking a hackey sack badminton birdie back and forth as gracefully as dancers. They'd laugh at the person who infrequently missed the return or kicked it poorly. It was again very peaceful, and helped me to understand how this culture could make such a big deal about drinking some hot tea.

We found Steven's bicycle locked among countless others, and after kindly refusing more post cards and books (of which we never bought any), we walked towards the most anticipated dinner of our entire visit at the Hot Pot Restaurant which has
a more formal name I can't recall. Lots of red and gold and wood and copper, and an entourage of Chinese businessmen entertaining a treasured guest donning a white suit, white shoes, and white beard, all of whom passed us on their way into the separate and very private dining room, right out of a Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre black and white film. The four of us each had what seemed to be our own personal waitress, each with a plastic embossed name tag with Chinese characters and then the English "No" and her number. [I'd grown to like the Anglicized names like "Sophie" or "Nancy" or "Wendy" or "Annabel" or "Jerry" which most of the service folk we'd met had adopted, and was a little offended that I'd have to ask Number 619 to again fill my tiny glass with beer from the bottle sitting right next to me or scoop fat from my individual copper bundt pot of boiling water which I'd been parboiling various offerings of meat, vegetables, fungi, and tofu.] But I still smiled at each of them, No one and all, since they too seemed so pleased to be doing their duties and attentive to our every need or desire. The crazy thing was that tips are not expected, nor does anyone seem to give them. The service comes because it's expected as part of the job. And they really seem eager to do their jobs well. I still can't answer if it's because of the culture, or because they know that there are probably ten more Chinese who would love to have their jobs if they don't do it well. But it was a good meal, and like all others we ate with Steven, we never left hungry. Steven insisted on picking up the tab, and after some hesitation, we graciously accepted. Turned out to be the one time in history that he underestimated the tab, but he refused to accept anything from us. So I like to think that I took care of the tip.

Steven also presented us with a wonderful parting memento, Natural China, a book of beautiful nature photography published by his own Nature Conservancy, to remember our time with him and with Alex. I'd often wondered, watching Steven and Alex walking on ahead of us during various times around Beijing, how things work---that Steven and Alex end up, if only for a brief period, on the other side of our planet to create memories together, in much the same way that Amanda's and Bryan's lives overlapped for a time in Portland. It made me wonder what coincidences might be held in our future and thankful for those that we'd already enjoyed. And I thought of how I'd been able to witness all of it so far, and realized that I needed to write about it as well as photograph it in an attempt to really get as much flavor out of it as possible. So I guess that's my excuse for writing so much about things which other people could probably have said more concisely. [Ironically, my journal of our trip to China might be the one time where I could have simply and appropriately said, "The food is good."]

Parting with Steven was easy because he looked so happy. He had matured into a really neat guy and one with whom I was very proud to have shared our lives. Plus, I knew he'd be visited in a few months by Bryan's family as well as his mom and Tom, and that we'd see him again over Christmas back in Tulsa. Parting with Alex was much more difficult, even though I knew we'd see her in just a few weeks. She came back to the Doubletree to see our room and to spend a little more time together, but both she and Karen started to get really tired really quickly. I walked Alex down to her taxi, a bit of small talk to delay saying the important things we really wanted to say, and then just as her tears had welled up, I was able to croak out how much I really loved her, which is easier to print on a Valentine's coffee cup than it is to say as you're motioning to a Chinese taxi driver to take away one of the most important gifts of your life. I knew it was futile, but I still assessed the cabbie and memorized his license number as she quickly climbed into the front seat and headed off into the darkness. But I also knew that if she could handle Beijing, she can handle anything which life might throw at her. It made the trip back to 1539 more manageable, and I felt good.

Depart Beijing

Saturday, May 30, 2009

5/30 The Simatai section of the Great Wall is worth the risk

Alex was on Skype with a friend and kind of forgot that she said she'd come back to the hotel at 9 am. At 9:30, I called and learned that she hadn't yet left the campus. When she finally arrived, we met her downstairs, and less than five minutes later Steven appeared. We lounged a few minutes in the comfort of some high backed couches, and then set off in search of breakfast. It was a bit of a hunt, since the hotel was in a southwest part of Beijing not known for a plethora of restaurants. But Steven is very resourceful and found us an unmarked eatery. Since it was now closer to lunch time, and since he and I agreed that every Chinese meal goes better with beer, we called it lunch and ordered a whole lot of food and some beer. We struggled to find a driver willing to take the afternoon to take us to a remote section of the Great Wall, but as I said, Steven is resourceful. We negotiated the drive there (which we estimated as two hours), a couple of hours wait, and the return for an agreed upon price of Y650, more than we'd hoped but far less than most drivers were asking. The weather was in the mid-seventies and mostly sunny, and most importantly, the air was very clear. Our driver was friendly enough, made so by Steven sitting in the front seat visiting fluently with him. The trip up to the mountains was so restful and I felt like I'd become accustomed to seeing Chinese life, so I actually dozed off several times. Then I realized how irritated our driver had become because the area Steven had bargained for turned out to be a lot farther than the driver imagined. Steven was translating some of the comments made by the driver, and it was not sounding as hopeful as it had when we'd started out. We turned into an entrance and the driver called over to a guy standing in the middle of the road to come over. We determined that this was the road to one area of the Great Wall, and since the next entrance was 20km farther north, this would be the one we were taking, in spite of the fact that Steven wasn't altogether convinced that this was the one we had heard was so great. Nonetheless, as we approached, we saw hints that the portion of the wall to which we were headed was situated along some fairly majestic peaks. The dry, clear blue skies contrasted sharply with the mountains which, if they hadn't been so green, could have been an area northeast of Scottsdale. Of course, instead of pueblos were hutongs on the road leading up to the mountains. The driver let us off and agreed to be there when we came back, which we'd said would be around four o'clock. He'd demanded a rather substantial deposit, which Steven wisely cut in half after exchanging phone numbers.

We decided to take the lift up the mountain, so we bought one way tickets in addition to paying the entrance fees. Each car of the lift carried two people, so Karen and I jumped in first and Alex and Steven brought up the rear. There were not many people. In fact, as we were to soon discover, we'd come to a part of the Great Wall on a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon which featured more vendors than there were tourists. We couldn't believe our good fortune (except that each tourist became more highly sought by each vendor) as we climbed higher and higher toward the crest of the mountains. Unfortunately, the lift ended well before we'd reached the top, and we climbed an additional couple of thousand feet to reach the wall, being trailed by one mysterious vendor who shadowed us stair by stair for a majority of the climb. He’d stop and wait every time we stopped to catch our breath. Even having grown accustomed to Chinese sense of space, this began to grow on all our nerves. It became worse as he continued to follow us, lock step, as we explored many segments of the Great Wall. And I became frustrated at the fact that my ability to tell him how I felt was limited to hello, thank you, and the food is good. But just before I had decided to risk life and limb and push him over the wall into a Mongolian abyss, Steven talked with the man's wife, who had also joined us by this time and was trying to sell us the kinds of books, postcards, and other valuable commodities for which we'd purposefully traveled seven thousand miles and climbed seven thousand steps. He explained that we really were not in the market for anything except maybe a really cold beverage, of which there were none, so that the man's time would be better spent pestering the Europeans farther up the wall (which had been the solution which I'd suggested to Alex, that if any vendor approached me asking if I wanted a whatever, that I'd respond with a "No" but then point to a distant stranger and say something like "but Rolf, there, he's looking for a good tour guide" and then walk away). And it worked brilliantly. The guy finally left and we got to enjoy a desolate stretch of the Great Wall of China. Although, "enjoy" might be at times a euphemism for "almost die on" or "nearly fell to my death" on. We'd experienced steep risers and narrow steps throughout China, but now it was possible to fall to your death within a few steps to the right, to the left, and straight ahead of you. To make it even more exciting, a gale force wind from right to left greeted us as we emerged from every guard house, many of which looked like they'd been successfully battered by those same winds for centuries, and some were in such bad shape that we were forced to detour around them on a narrow path.

There were no other tourists here for a reason, it seemed. My knees and legs already ached, and I knew Karen felt the same. Unfortunately, I think even Alex and Steven were showing signs of fatigue (which reinforced the fact that we were pushing our aged bodies to their limit), and we weren't even sure as we walked for what seemed like miles down the wall that we wouldn't reach the separation between cliffs (where there was now a narrow rope bridge that I sure as hell was not going to traverse) and have to turn around and then climb all the way back up to where we'd started in order to then get back down to where the lift had dropped us. On the one hand, it was magnificent. On the other, I was wondering how many sets of tourist bones were scattered along those mountains which had gone unrecovered. [We later learned that a friend of Steven's had camped along the wall not far from here and had her entire bag, cell phone, passport, gear and all, blow off the wall and vanish, unrecoverable, far far below. Forever.] To add a relatively minor stress, it was 4:15 and we were still near the apex of the journey. But did that stop us from some fun photos? Heck no! We were still commenting on Steven's recent stellar performance at the Expat Show in Beijing, and asked him for some pointers on posing as a Chinese opera star (which he and a buddy had performed for two days to the delight of thousands of Chinese attendees---they were the hit of the show---see and give it a moment to load). So we have various combinations of opera poses (and Dave as a Mongol warrior, though I think I look more Manchurian) on top of the Great Wall. No photo compared to Steven's opera debut, but we attributed that to the fact that they'd paid a guy 800 yuan to spend two days covering them with make-up in full authentic Chinese costumes (which Steven complained were not at all comfortable for a person of his height).

We eliminated any more photo shoots and purposefully forced ourselves to make better time going down. We estimated that if we were lucky, we'd get back to the drop off area at about 5 pm, and that the taxi driver might still be there, and if not, we might be able to find others to get us at least part of the way back. We marched. We stepped. Our calves and feet were burning, since the steps became so steep at times that the Chinese authorities actually installed the one and only safety device I'd seen on our entire trip to China, a steep steel ladder with handrails. Our spirits lifted after we confirmed that we were indeed on the correct route by talking with an English speaking pair who were climbing in the reverse direction. Our pace quickened, if only for a few steps, and then the pain returned. Poor Alex had worn flip flops, which caused us even greater concern. But we were making really good time and finally arrived at a side path which had just recently been completed and was populated by, you guessed it, lots of local vendors. A group of college kids were keeping the drink vendors busy, so we made our getaway. A short distance later, we saw a zip line which offered to whisk us most of the way down the trail for only Y40 each, but Steven and Dave felt that we'd already pushed our luck for the day. Karen more than Alex really wanted to show that she had faith in the Chinese safety commission and didn't seem to understand that this attraction was probably run by a relative of the guy who'd followed us morosely for thirty minutes just a while earlier. So we walked on, and were relieved after we saw that takers of the zip line trip were probably taken again at the bottom, since there was no trail out for them. They probably had to pay another Y40 each for the boat ride to shuttle them out to the park exit. In the alternative, they'd still be listening to the vendors' sales pitches.

Our driver was located via Steven's cell. He was in a particularly jocular frame of mind, given that we were over an hour late for our scheduled return. It seems he'd made a particularly clever purchase of some fish, and he'd made a friend of another taxi driver, and he'd probably found some rice wine, because he was just giddy and so pleased that he'd spent a beautiful afternoon in the mountains (which is what Steven told him to expect in the first place). We started back, and as he had done on the way up the mountain, displayed his propensity to pass slower vehicles both on the left and the right. We'd grown accustomed to beginning to pass a vehicle at the same point that Westerners would feel compelled to return to one's proper lane to avoid the unfortunate and often painful head on collision. Yet we survived in spite of odds stacked against us. Karen insisted that I stop taking photos from the car, because every time I had the camera out and was ready to click the shutter, the driver would turn and stare at me or at what I was going to photograph and not look at the road ahead of us. He did so regardless of our speed or the winding road, and probably would have even done so while passing, but I couldn't bring myself to test this theory. As it was, we hit over 180 km per hour on the tollway for much of the remote parts. My already taxed brain recorded that driving in a taxi at over 110 mph without a back seatbelt was another first for our family. It also provided examples for posterity of how difficult it is to navigate between slow moving vehicles, like trucks filled with oil, bricks, or stone, when the difference in relative speeds is over 70 mph and the trucks are perilously unaware of our approach from behind. Again, we just knew that somehow it would work and that we'd survive again. After all, we'd been kind to some of the sadder vendors. Steven had purchased some berries from a hard working older woman, and during our mountain return, even convinced the cab driver to pull over for us to buy apricots and cherries from a cart family on the side of the road.

The driver took us to another of Steven's favorite haunts, a place famous for serving up great lamb soup and something like fried lamb tacos. Steven had made history during one visit for eating a full meal and topping it off with five of the fried tacos. As we finished, several of his friends came in for dinner, so we had a chance to meet Andrew (Steven's cohort performing the previous weekend at the Expat Show), Austin, and Emily (broken foot cast recently decorated by her friends). We left, and Steven led us in the darkness through several alleys. I know it sounds strange, but if you can avoid the occasional nasty sewer and diesel exhaust smells, the rest of Beijing smells of mesquite wood burning and can be rather pleasant. After a bit, we suddenly emerged near the Bell Tower that Karen and I had gone up ten days earlier, so we started to get our bearings, the only difference being that Karen and I had limited our adventure to well lit main streets during the daytime. Steven preferred the back alleys at night. We passed our former hotel, The Bamboo Garden, and revisited the blind masseurs for a relieving foot and leg massage. Since they were unusually busy for so late on Saturday, the proprietor brought us each an oak bucket lined with plastic so that we could sit out in the alley and soak our feet in hot water, steeping with what resembled a tea bag. As soon as my blind young man finished massaging an elderly handicapped woman and the proprietor kindly carried her to her wheelchair, I let him work my feet with his knuckles and knead them until I passed out from relaxation. Karen did the same. I loved the fact that he spoke a few words of English, so that I could tell him my feet felt "Beautiful" and I didn't have to tell him in Chinese that "The food is good." We returned the empty bottles of beer which Steven and I had purchased to get the deposit back, and he walked us out to the main road so that Alex could catch her taxi and we could catch ours. Alex had left her cell phone in Karen's pocket, so her textbook departure was slightly marred by her having to literally run back down the street to us screaming before we too had entered the second cab. Although tired, Steven walked to his hutong since it was relatively close.

Explore the Forbidden City on important anniversaries

Friday, May 29, 2009

5/29 - Near death experiences getting to and leaving Guilin

We grabbed another nice breakfast at Kelly's Cafe, Karen going for the bacon and egg sandwich and Alex and I each getting another banana pancake with honey, fruit, juice, and coffee. "Wendy" stopped by our table to gently give us a hard time for not having called her for tickets to any of the nightly evening light shows on the river, which everyone had said was spectacular, but we saw as an opportunity for them to ritually sacrifice tourists to the mosquitoes and make a lot of money doing it. (I was getting confident in my newfound ability to actually distinguish various Asian ethnicities, as I'd recognized Wendy from two days earlier when she'd introduced herself while we were drinking Mojitos at Bar 98 and tried to get us to hire her as a local tour guide.) Then we returned to our Rosewood Inn, where we kind of knew it would be hard to say goodbye to the sweet staff. True to their word, they'd done everything they could to make our stay very pleasant and had exceeded our expectations, and Sophie even presented us with a gift box of rice wine, chili sauce, and pickled tofu as we departed. All I had to return the gesture was my well worn business card, but we planned on putting a package together to surprise the trio (together with Tracy, whom I'd repeatedly mistaken for Sophie, and new mom Annabel, whom I'd once embarrassed making small talk, asking how here five-month-old son was doing, to which she'd replied, "Did Sophie tell you about my son?" and I'd reminded her that she herself had during one of my other attempts at communication.) and writing an e-mail of thanks to Mr. Wong (the patriarch of several businesses on the block) as soon as we returned to the US. After all, they'd innocently introduced us and helped guide us to our favorite gifts which we'd picked up in Yangshuo, the tennis racket electric bug zappers. We took a nice group photo, and their final words of wisdom were to take the express bus to Guilin rather than the other bus, which was known for attracting loads of pickpockets on the dozens of stops between the towns. (So, about ten minutes later, we actually get on an empty bus and ride it two blocks until we determine that it is likely to become exactly the same type of bus of which we'd been forewarned). We found an actual bus station and purchased express bus tickets for the next departure, and instead of being robbed, got to enjoy a very early Jackie Chan film on the closed circuit television, which Alex and I at times really laughed hard at in spite of the fact that it was spoken and subtitled in Chinese and I still couldn't be certain who were the good and bad guys. We just knew every time Jackie pulled up his sleeve to expose his magic fist, a bad guy was going to be punched literally across the room or through a wall. Kind of like the thug sitting next to me on the bus, whom I'd determined was one of the latter. He had several cell phone calls during the trip (which should have been only one hour, but turned in to an hour forty-five, for although our bus didn't make stops, it had been passed by nearly every other vehicle on the road, including a three wheeler powered by a lawn mower engine). Every time he answered his cell, which had a uncharacteristic, attractive, delicate ring tone, he'd bellow "Wei" in a distinctively northern growl and then lots of other monosyllabic groans until I'd realized he must have concluded his conversation since he'd resumed his reclining position along the window and reclosed his eyes (he'd already pulled the blinds away from the passenger in the forward seat in order to block off the sunlight and glared threateningly at him when the poor guy foolishly attempted to pull the blinds back into their original seatmate had done the same with the curtains from behind us as well....nobody was willing to risk tugging at their curtains when they realized who this guy was). Not that I knew he was a thug when I'd first relocated from a seat I'd taken on the bus to my "assigned" seat (Karen, Alex and I had never guessed that the express bus had assigned seats) and found him occupying my aisle seat 15. I had pointed at my chest and then where he was sitting. No response. So I did it a bit more forcefully, with a Clint Eastwood raised eyebrow and without a single word (which I figured later worked greatly to my advantage, since I probably would have again said "The food is good.") He'd moved to the window and we did not exchange niceties.

As we finally approached the Guilin bus terminal, we got stuck in traffic. It seems all the buses in Guilin converge to one location a few blocks off the main street, and if you'd seen how many buses were crammed into the station, you'd understand why all the buses, cars, bicycles, and carts were backed up several blocks and not moving. Since Jackie was still punching the bad guys and I'd started to figure out the plot, we were okay with the hold up, but my seatmate was not. His restlessness (and I presume familiarity with the neighborhood and possibly the stench of my bug repellent) caused him to be the only person to insist on being let off prematurely into the mayhem. I felt victorious, and sighed a deep breath as my backpack was placed on the only vacant seat on the express. Minutes later, we entered the bus stop, which unlike the airport (our ultimate planned destination), displayed no English signs anywhere and resembled instead a scene of pure pandemonium. After ten days in China, I'd concluded that nothing was ever what I expected, and I was not let down. Wandering around the bus station felt a lot like being lost in a football stadium during game day. We searched for what looked like it might be a ticket office in order to buy tickets for the airport bus. Three intelligent people wandering helplessly in Southeast Asia watching each other's backpacks in a sea of singsong faces of people who were probably quite nice but could be killers. They doubtless all knew how to effortlessly wring a chicken's neck, and that itself kept us on our toes. We got into a conversation with a driver of a black cab, which we knew would involve negotiating an agreed upon fare to the airport (we didn't want another "fir teen" miscommunication over price), and reached a middle ground which was just slightly more than what we knew we'd paid to take the combination shuttle and cab from the airport six days earlier. We followed him to his cab (parked near the real ticket counter), and he whisked us off to the airport. He asked if we were hungry, and offered to take us to a restaurant so that we could grab some lunch before our flight. Alex thanked him, but explained that we were stuffed still from breakfast. We felt like old pros, driving through Guilin and recognizing areas near our seedy hotel where we'd spent two nights earlier on our trip. In fact, he was parking on the wrong side of the street so that we could eat lunch at the Lonely Planet restaurant. He'd misunderstood our request (or maybe it was a cousin’s restaurant). After explaining again that we weren't hungry, and blocking traffic in both directions as he turned his taxi around right there in the middle of the street, we were once again off to the Guilin airport. We drove through such interesting parts of the city, and then through parts of the edge of the city which looked like new industrial areas, fairly contemporary yet empty campuses of business ventures which looked recently vacated. Then we saw some beautiful countryside, where I found myself playing the game of identify the pollutant as I watched ponds of various shades of brown mixed into the fields of deep green. Again, there were intermittent areas of residential and then again industrial areas, with many smokestacks still belching an interesting mix of blue and gray smoke. With the exception of one brick factory, I couldn't definitively describe any of the products being manufactured at these locations. But I did start making notes of the few locations which displayed any words in English, because I started to feel the hairs on my neck tingle. This was not the same road we'd traveled a week earlier when we'd been shuttled from the airport to the city, not even close. We were lost. Worse, Karen and Alex were beginning to suspect that we were being driven to an undisclosed location where thieves were waiting to rob and dismember us, and even what little remained of our bodies (nothing went to waste in China) would go undiscovered forever. Their suspicions were confirmed when we turned onto a stone road which had no other traffic except three wheeled carts, all of which were snaking around like we were attempting to avoid the hundreds of six foot diameter pot holes and puddles of unknown depth. I was just about to reach for my cellphone to call 411, not for information but rather, in China, is the number for emergency, so that I could tell the operator "The food is good" and that (on the off chance somebody on the other end spoke English) the most recent sign I'd seen which I could identify said Greater China Mining Company, but then I saw a large airplane at low altitude in the distance. As we rounded the next hill, the control tower came into view as did an entrance, of sorts, to a well manicured and fairly modern airport. We had apparently traveled to the other "main entrance" of the Guilin airport to avoid taking the toll roads, and hence had been treated to a much more interesting and varied terrain, not to mention adrenaline rush which often accompanies watching too many horror films and then imagining living them in real life. Even though I had been confident all along, the tone of the girls' voices had caused a few pangs of concern, in spite of the several nice conversations Alex had with our driver, who again seemed too nice to be the brutal killer that he could have just as well been. He could have retrieved the business card he'd given us after he'd robbed and killed us is what Karen said. We were relieved to have been dropped at the international wing, even though we were just flying domestically back to Beijing.

The girls ran off the hit the restroom, made even more necessary by the bumpiest segment of the journey between the pot holes, as I determined that we were actually fairly close to where we needed to be to check in for our flight. Actually, we weren't far from the very helpful tourist information desk which I'd initially found when I uncharacteristically ventured off from Alex after we first landed in Guilin, although it was currently unstaffed. We checked Alex's backpack since it was loaded with our liquids, and then proceeded through airport security. We were met by a couple of perplexed guards who, after seeing the bag of tennis racket shaped electric bug zappers (as I've described, some unusual gift items we'd hoped to carry on), insisted that we return to the ticketing agent to check the items as luggage. After seeing the look on our faces as we tried to determine how we'd be able to figure out how to reaccomplish what we'd achieved thus far, they simply said that we could carry the items on board with us, which we did, so I told them "The food is good." (Now that I think about it, security should never have allowed us to carry eight of these charged things on board.) We found some very comfortable '70's style chairs in a lounge area and paid as much for each small beer as we'd paid for a meal at some of the family run eating establishments on our trip, and although it bothered Alex to spend so much money, Karen and I had looked at spending yuan more as a challenge in determining the most effective combination of bills to provide so as to minimize the number of fairly worthless wu jou (or half kuai) notes we might receive in change. We liked the more valuable, larger notes, because they were physically bigger. On the flip side, larger notes were easier to grab when one reached into one's shirt pocket, which made me rather inept at easily pulling out pocket change (wu jous) for street beggars, so I just gave up trying and instead resolved to be called a series of mean names as I walked past, or maybe they were also commenting on the quality of the food.

We played poker until boarding time, Karen again getting a number of really good hands, and then, like before, got onto the plane bound for Beijing with a relatively few number of other westerners, who were all seated together in the center section of the otherwise empty plane. Just a few minutes before departure, the balance of vacant seats were taken by a wave of locals, who looked as if they were seasoned shoppers who had just kept shopping until the last possible moment and then jumped on the bus as it departed. This is actually an accurate description, because many of these people were busy taking pictures of each other and out the windows and gleefully giggling as the stewards tried to get them to put their shopping bags under the seats or above in compartments. Many would stand to take photos as the plane was taxiing in preparation for take off, and I think the stewards finally gave up and were satisfied if most of the passengers still had their seat belts fastened as the plane took off. I wish I'd known how to get these discount tickets, because this particular flight happened to be the most expensive leg of all of our Chinese travel arrangements. And it turned out to be the least appealing, as far as food options. Alex is convinced that fish was on the menu (we'd avoided anything raised from China's waterways) solely for the non-Chinese speaking passengers, and she wanted to get our stewards' names in order to write to China Air and complain after she thought she heard them utter the Chinese word for "pork" to some of the passengers sitting behind us. As it turned out, the lunch was edible and we all survived, in spite of the fact that it was Alex's first time in her life to eat fish on a plane, and Karen and I hadn't done so since we first saw the movie Airplane.

We were treated to an uncharacteristically clear sunset as we flew into Beijing Friday evening. We could see the canals which at one time had defined the fields and paddies to the southeast of the city, and now were flanked with trees. We saw one walled area which seemed to be a luxurious golf course and some official looking buildings, which Alex pointed out might be an area occupied by party officials. Nearer the city and closer to high rise apartment buildings was the requisite nuclear power plant. In the distance to the north and west were the mountains. We'd learn later that because it had rained recently and from the stiff winds, the air was fairly clean. We splurged again and grabbed a taxi to the hotel. Our final three nights would be spent using HHonors points at the Beijing Doubletree.

It turned out to be one of the nicer hotels of the trip, and we were in the mood for a little pampering. Alex stuck around for a little while, but started to get sleepy, so she grabbed a taxi back to the university. Karen and I found the lounge and had our first mixed drinks in nearly two weeks, which were accompanied by some snacks which looked like Pringles potato chips but tasted like something completely different. We were not very picky, for our drinks contained real ice. And our room had the first soft bed we'd found since arriving in China. We turned the silent yet efficient air conditioning down to a frigid 22 degrees and passed out fifteen stories above the city.

Back to Beijing and the Simatai section of the Great Wall

Thursday, May 28, 2009

5/28 - Yangshuo Cooking School

Which brings me to today! After a quick western breakfast of great banana pancakes, fruit, juice, and coffee, we were off to our official cooking class with our host Kelly (see last I checked, the site pretty accurately described the fun we had learning to stir fry). We met lots of other tourists from both the US and the UK, some very enjoyable folks, and we were all escorted through the local farmer’s market. Let me try to describe both the high and low points of this market, the similarities and the differences to farmer’s markets in the US with which you might be familiar. In the US, you meet and talk with the farmer who grew the crop, harvested it, and drove it to market. In Yangshuo, you meet but cannot talk with the person who squats near an unidentifiable yet very beautiful looking organic of some sort (which Kelly named, but since we knew there would be no final quiz, most of us quickly forgot) or the person who rode in with a cage full of chickens, rabbits, or geese and was eager to pass it to you live, stunned or partially prepared, depending on your freshness preference [at breakfast, I'd unsuccessfully tried to get a photo of a guy in a suit carrying a dead chicken hooked on his briefcase...there were just too many stories possible from this one scene]. One farmer had as many vegetables and herbs displayed as did the scarf and jade vendors along the waterfront market. One fellow was busy peeling cloves of garlic [why they bother is an unanswered question] for display. Others hung pork parts which we don't think were actually the parts which our guide euphemistically called "the bladder." We avoided the more grizzly areas of the beef and dead animal areas, and were warned not to photograph any of the tofu ladies [none of the other farmers or animal providers seemed to have a problem with cameras....tofu must be in a class by itself]. The produce market consisted of two warehouses of customers and vendors, each about the size of Walgreen's or a bit larger. The aisle ways were wet, somewhat dirty, had pedestrian traffic in two directions which was occasionally punctuated by motorcycle or tricycle deliveries of animals or more raw veggies. There were people and products everywhere. Every color and kind of egg imaginable was stacked in rows. A guy smoking was lining up his rows of green onions. Babies played in the limited free space on the cloth areas which defined each vendors' one or two hundred square feet. A squatting customer was counting out wu jiao's and kuai on the ground to complete his transaction for his restaurant's or family’s daily needs. I'm sure our noodle making grandpa was around there somewhere, but we'd already been past the pork area and had no interest in making our favorite Yangshuo dinners too personal.

We got to know the other cooking students on the way over to the kitchen. Quite nice people. Two eighteen-year-old London girls, Etta (Henriette) and Gina, traveling together, had just spent three weeks crossing Russia and found it very cold and forbidding. Although neither spoke Russian nor Chinese, they enjoyed their trek through China thus far (a second three weeks) and planned on continuing on to Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. I told them they should write a book not on their travels, but on how to convince one's parents to allow worldwide travel by young girls through third world countries, but they seemed to take for granted what I considered the novelty of their adventures. I suppose cell phones enable more risk taking than I ever imagined. A married couple, TC from London and Vanessa from Australia, were both eloquent and entertaining. A pair of ladies from Texas were actually fun too, and finally another mother-daughter pair doing their third class this week from (you guessed it) London rounded out our group. We each had a chef station, and learned how to prepare five dishes using a cleaver and wood block, a well seasoned wok, and a cool personal propane wok stove at our stainless steel work area. Dumplings, fried tofu and vegetables, spicy chicken, green vegetable and garlic, and Yangshuo style sweet and sour pork (from the tender arm roast area and not the mystery parts we'd seen at the market, I'm told). When I get back to the states and perfect these new techniques, I promise to add the recipes to the Yahoo! group DavesDiningGuests site. I just have to iron out the kinks. But we ate everything we cooked, and are still feeling all right several hours later in spite of slicing raw chicken and pork on a wooden cutting block. We also forgot to wash our hands afterward and ate some fresh fruit (bayberry) with our hands, so we'll see if our luck holds. Alex photographed the entire class and got to eat the fruits of our labor during an enjoyable hour of dining and international exchange (though most of it UK / US except for the Chinese host and assistants). We plan to have lots of photos documenting our culinary adventure on the website to share with these other travelers.

We walked back to our hotel through the riverfront market, feeling more and more confident with the vendors, either because we've learned how to deal with them, we've become accustomed to and ignore their shouts of ello, ello, or they've recognized the odd guy in the same Hawaiian shirt carrying the big camera and the pair of expert hagglers who are shopping with purpose. The biggest limitation to our shopping is that we have to carry whatever we purchase back to Beijing. A better deterrent has yet to be found to reign in on the temptations of the Chinese market.

Alex and Karen have worn out the cards playing Crazy 8's. In short, we were relishing the good lessons learned at the Yangshuo Cooking School. We were actually starting to miss Yangshuo already, even though we hadn't left yet. We'd mastered the street vendors, which were less pushy than those of other touristy spots (or, as I said, they simply recognized us). The landscape was breathtaking in every direction, and it was reassuring that the town's two and three-story buildings were dwarfed by the karsts. We'd survived the roadways and the market. We'd found some very good food, and spent our final dinner at our favorite food place with the very friendly family of restaurateurs. They had pushed all but one of their four tables together for a large, Chinese family of about ten. We had the other. It was so much fun watching the locals devour all their food in a festive manner. I kind of imagined they'd all met up in Yangshuo for dinner after maybe watching the Dragon Boat races up in Guilin and were in full swing, enjoying the first day of the Thursday, Friday, Saturday holiday. We branched out and ordered another, spectacular dish, though I still crave another Julienne potato stir fry. Grandma, very proud and eager for our assessment, brought me a sample of her very spicy hot chili, yellowish string bean appetizer, a chewy vinegary snack similar to one Jeying had shared with me (packaged) a year earlier. I alone, it seemed, forced myself to eat most of it, since it was after all a gift, and although it was oddly addictive, it was so chewy that I thought my jaw and molars would ache the next day. The dinner crowd had heated up, and even though the big family had finished and left, and their three tables had been quickly cleared and relocated, the place was packed again. We explained to the family that we'd be leaving Yangshuo the next day (since we'd hoped they too had enjoyed their repeat Caucasians and we didn't want them stocking extra beers or chopping extra potatoes for us), and we think they figured out what Alex was saying, certainly more than the grandpa had understood me. I'd pulled him over after he'd delivered one dish to our table and tried to tell him something to the effect that, "You are a lucky man. You have a beautiful family." Alex told me that it was probably interpreted as "The food is good."

Guilin is to die for

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

5/27 - Ballooning over southeast China

I awoke on my 49th birthday at 4:30am so that I could shower and then immediately spray myself with mosquito repellent. The balloon people, true to their word, knocked on our door and then waited patiently in our hotel for us to join them. In the early dawn, we drove toward the launch site and looked at the foggy, cloudy sky hoping that there might be some sign of its clearing. It did not look hopeful (Yahoo weather forecast predicted more thunderstorms today and tomorrow for Guilin). Nonetheless, the morning cloudiness would probably be safer than an afternoon thunderstorm, so the balloons started filling (we'll have lots of photos, albeit, low contrast photos). The roar of the burners and fans in a formerly peaceful quiet would bother me if I'd been a resident of the adjacent buildings, but they looked completely vacant. The three of us were joined by a pair from Switzerland (Daniel and his mom Macarena, who also had just celebrated a birthday) and we hopped in the basket with our pilot.

Adding six people to a basket which already included two large propane tanks and hoses was an adventure itself. The heat from the burner over our heads and the deafening noise was rather severe, and I worried that my weight together with the two backpacks we'd tossed in would exceed the allowable limit. We weren't lifting off, in spite of the constant heat being applied by the burner and roasting my hairless head. Finally, we moved a bit, and the two ground crew members directed us slightly. We suddenly started ascending toward the vacant apartments which, unfortunately, were four stories tall and very near. But we successfully cleared the buildings and were moving vertically much faster than we were drifting horizontally. The sudden silence (and refreshing cool breeze) as we were swiftly climbing was hypnotic. Even though each of us faced outward, we had an ever expanding view of diminishing rice fields and karst peaks, Yangshuo and other towns in the distance, and the snaking river. We climbed so quickly that in little time we were above the tops of the mountains, and then too soon into and above the lowest layer of clouds. I could no longer see the ground, yet felt the wind moving us along, and all I could think of was the old movie King Kong. I was certain that if we descended blindly then suddenly we'd see that we'd drifted into a series of pinnacles and we'd be doomed to become part of the local folklore. Nobody else seemed to share my concern, so I figured, "What the hay" [loosely translated it means "Ohhhh shiiiiit"] and just kept looking for any landmarks on the ground.

We slowly returned below the clouds and could make out discrete areas of farming, buildings, roads and trails, burial sites (circular raised areas in grouped areas often at the base of the peaks), rivers and bridges, and towns. On at least two occasions, the first being over a fast flowing river, our pilot took us down and hovered within twenty feet of the surface, prompting me to put away the camera and prepare for impact. Only then he would take us back up. We rose alongside a karst and then sailed over its peak, noting how dense and varied the vegetation along its entire rock face seemed to be. He flew us very close to Moon Hill, an arched semi-circular opening atop one of the karst peaks. It was a gray, low contrast day, in which visibility was slowly improving as the sun (presumably) was making its way higher in the sky.

Alex soared like an eagle over much of Southeast Asia that morning. We set down after an hour or so of flight, in the middle of a little traveled roadway where a truck and some attendants were waiting (okay, the pilot had a GPS and two-way radio and had been in frequent contact with the ground). Nonetheless, I still think it would have been more fun if we'd tipped sideways in a rice field and had to slog through the mud to find a way back, which is kind of what I’d expected when we first set out. We'd sprayed enough Off on ourselves to have been able to trek through the jungle [first thing our driver did when we got into the van was to open several of the windows for ventilation] and we had outfitted our backpacks for nearly every eventuality [hence my relief when we were indeed able to lift off].

Actually, our pilot successfully landed our basket very gently on the roadway. It had helped that we'd seen another balloon successfully perform the same maneuver a few minutes before us, and they seemed to have survived unscathed [speaking of scathes, we joked that a woman the previous day had approached us with one....well, joke is not exactly the right word, she indeed had her arm held high with an exceedingly sharp one in her fist as we scooted quickly past her]. A couple of attendants jumped on the basket to keep it from returning to flight, and we each took turns crawling out and thanking our pilot for not burning us alive as he switched hoses from one tank to the next, and for avoiding the smokestack [descending over and almost into a very tall industrial smokestack and seeing inside it from above is something they should add to the tour description and which I'd highly recommend each of you try at least once in your life], and for avoiding the power lines and vacant apartment building and karst peaks from within the clouds, and for not saying in his relatively limited English "We are out of fuel and are going down" or "One of you will have to leap" or "Dear Buddha, Please Forgive Me!" Instead, we each just said "She she."

So I survived my 49th birthday thus far. After a quick breakfast of fruit and banana pancakes, we've returned to the Rosewood Inn so that Karen and Alex can catch a few more winks. I'm drinking tea and writing, and feel pretty good about being alive.

Brief aside: Thanks for all your Birthday Wishes, Amanda, Tom, Rayme, and Helen! Like I said, it was so nice to have survived another, especially given the lack of OSHA regulations in the Asian ballooning world. I talked with another traveler from Jerusalem who landed within a meter of a power line yesterday afternoon and described all the excitement on the part of the ground crew as they attempted to keep the balloon from coming in contact with live wires.

By Wednesday afternoon, the girls had finished their morning naps and we embarked on a rural exploration on three hotel bicycles. These were actually very nice mountain bikes, with front shock absorbers and comfy seats. My only complaint was that my ringer lacked a handle, so while Karen and Alex joined in the cacophony of bells and horns on the streets of Yangshuo, I had to invent various sounds as I passed some of the slower tourists, oxcarts, or pedestrians. Actually, it allowed me great freedom to make guttural sounds, which I'd been doing as entertainment primarily to aggravate Karen, who insisted that I was being rude to the locals and might be saying something offensive. Although I think she was being overly sensitive, there may have been some truth to her admonition. Alex told me that instead of telling our favorite noodle maker that the food was great, I'd called the food stupid, or something along those lines.

This time we found no difficulty in finding the right road, since we'd traveled it with our ballooning group. But it still amazes me how much more sensual a journey can be when on bicycle and lacking a rear view mirror. My visual senses, having been overwhelmed, relied on auditory clues as to what might be approaching from our back sides. I felt oddly relieved when, at one point where I'd stopped to photograph a Chinese burial site, a petrol truck (or a sewage truck, or a milk truck, they oddly all look alike) actually slowed and moved over a bit when it saw that it would be passing Karen and Alex. [Do I still need to mention that it blared its horn? Everyone in China blares his horn.] We reached the edge of the village after successfully passing through a couple of roundabouts and were met by relative silence. It was actually a nice roadway, relatively flat (considering the surrounding terrain and karst peaks), and surprisingly empty of noxious odors, though there were several small ponds which defy description. I could write pages about the types of people we've encountered, but I'll leave it up to students of Chinese culture, because I'd probably get it all wrong anyhow. Let it suffice to say that Karen and Alex still yell at me because I like to make eye contact or acknowledge some of the people I encounter, the ones who appear to me to also want to open a door. [Problem is, eye contact tends to encourage street vendor activity.] We saw lots of rice paddies, various forms of rural housing, and reached our destination of a plaza at the Yulong River bridge, where dozens of bamboo boat operators waited to snag interested tourists. We spent a little time exploring the river and some of its rapids, and watched as many bamboo craft (six or seven large diameter, very long bamboo poles lashed together and featuring a pair of bamboo seats covered by an umbrella, and piloted by a barefoot, tan driver). The going rate for bamboo boat rides was about CNY100 ($15), and although it looked like lots of fun, we thought our health would benefit from as little contact with the river as possible. Having recovered from the ride out (which always seems farther than the return journey), we decided to head back toward town. We took our time on the return, made more stops, watched three adventurers climbing hundreds of feet up on the vertical face of a karst, and tried to determine what safety measures might have been in place to protect these climbers. At least we saw helmets, and we think we even saw safety ropes.

This area is wonderful in that it is a tourist destination and loaded with many nationalities, though many are Chinese from around the country. So many people made an effort to say hello in English as they passed or were passed on the trip back to town. All in all, in spite of gently burning legs, it was a very relaxing afternoon. I just know that riding in the same manner which is taken for granted here in China would result in certain, instantaneous, painful death if performed in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

We returned the bikes and grabbed some tall bottles of cheap, but good, Chinese beer (Happy Hour wouldn't begin for two more hours). More market shopping, relatively unsuccessful compared with the previous day, made us a bit weary. We again went to our favorite Bei Fang Qing Hua Jaio Zi noodle place to again have Julienne potatoes, noodles with tomato and beef, and stir fry pork. The titles do not do justice to the five stars each of these dishes should be awarded. Capped off by three more tall Chinese beers, and another round of "name the relationship each of the shop owners and employees in the market has to one another" made for a great dinner. My birthday dinner was very memorable, and we again were entertained by members of the Bei Fang family, from five-month old "Stella" to her grandma (Karen's, and now my, age) and all the relatives in between. I felt sorry for the paternal chef, whom I assume was grandpa (though he too was only about my age), because it looked as though he'd lost at whatever card game he was playing with the shopkeeper from across the alley. The young man took him for every kuai he probably had, and I had been rooting for the old noodle maker. We hope to have ingratiated ourselves enough so that for our last dinner in Yangshuo we'll be able to watch our dinner being made. More on this later.

We finished the evening drinking Mojitos and playing poker at our little bar owned by the Australians. Unfortunately, a rather vulgar pair of their compatriots sat behind us within earshot and insisted on making rude comments about every Chinese waitress within sight as if none of them comprehended any English. Funny how exotic settings can sometimes bring out the drunken sailor in English speaking jerks. We called it an early night without any billiards, since Alex planned on waking us all up in a few hours to catch the EUFA soccer final from Rome (which we watched at 2:45 am - got to see FC Barcelona defeat Manchester United--hooray).

Yang can cook!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

5/26 - Yangshuo is a quaint little town

In America, patrons at outdoor cafes along a river hope for good weather. Generally, people like to be comfortable and dry when drinking or eating dinner. Funny thing is that it's different in Yangshuo. We found us a place (Bar 98) last night where if it's sunny, they close at 6pm and stay open late only if it's wet and miserable. It seems all the potential customers are off at the light show on the river if the weather is nice. Kind of backward as compared with how the crowds are at home, but that's the way it is.

We ate great noodles last night. Got to see tomorrow's noodles being made as well. The chef was even letting her granddaughter sample some of the dough (a little baby, who didn't care much for her grandma's offer). Drank mai tais, mojitos, and pina coladas because they were Happy Hour drinks (and Happy Hour apparently runs from sun-up until closing) and then played some pool. Slept pretty well, and here we are, writing about our adventures and drinking some tea on Tuesday morning.

I e-mailed my girls that if they needed to call us, they should Google The Rosewood Inn in Yangshuo. We don't have a phone in the room, but the front desk day people are Sophie and Annabel. Either would be nice enough to run down to our room and grab one of us if we're around. I told them to just use Net2Phone and they'd only have to pay six cents a minute. Not a bad rate, considering we were just about on the opposite side of the world. I'd say just call Alex's cell, but that would run down her remaining minutes (and for some strange reason, she can't purchase more minutes until we get back to Beijing).

We don't know what we're doing tomorrow yet. We think hot air ballooning over this area is one option. Authentic Chinese cooking classes are another. This area also seems to have some neat things in the markets (shock!), so we might be doing some shopping. In general, it's just nice to walk around and not feel like we're going to get run over by a car. Pickpockets are known to hang out around here, so we still have to be on our toes.

We continued to press our luck. We rented two electric scooters and braved the streets. Karen hopped on behind me and, with Alex in the lead, we went in search of the trail to the Yulong River. Navigated the chaos pretty well (I think the locals know to give a wide berth to American tourists). Alex ran into the back of another motorcycle only once (as the photo above shows, Alex liked to drive forward while looking backward), when the guy abruptly stopped dead to visit with another local driver in a small utility cart. Only kind of nicked him. We learned some Chinese sounds for ouch. Every time we stopped to review the place mat we've used for our map of the area, locals have been very eager to help direct us on the route we hoped to find. They have all enthusiastically run over to us every time we stopped. They were very nice and didn't rob us. After several redirections, we finally found the path we'd been looking for and headed away from the town and into the fields. Among the karst peaks are rice paddies and fields of every kind of vegetable, worked it seems by one person in each of the fields (in other words, isolated and spread out, unlike what we saw in the cities where agricultural workers squatted shoulder to shoulder to plant plugs of grass). Often, a person was working the mud with the aid of a water buffalo. We traveled through multiple small villages, each with a little vendor who might offer drinks or staple goods. Very frequently, we'd see several local residents congregated there with a baby or two and playing cards or hawking other goods, like flowers or fans. [I had this nonsensical image go through my head, that these vendors believed I had flown for over twenty hours, cruised a river, navigated a gauntlet of vendors, swatted mosquitoes, and then scooted through traffic and into the rice paddies just so that I could purchase a paper cutout of my wife's profile. Actually, later in the afternoon, I did.]

Somehow finding the path to the river ( we hit the end of the road, literally, and doubled back after being chased by a woman yelling "bamboo raft, this way, this way"), we scooted down an even narrower path, encouraged by some European bicyclists heading in the opposite direction. We crossed the river on a bridge made of 1'x3' rectangular stones (had to have been very heavy) arranged to form a platform. I didn't really want to study the foundation, since there were no alternatives anyhow and it looked as though countless people had successfully crossed, probably for centuries. Once we got over, however, we encountered a tour group of Swedes heading in the opposite direction. They had both an English speaking guide and, at the tail end, a guard of sorts. He had reflective sunglasses and stayed behind, we think, because Karen had stayed with our scooters while I went back to get some fun photos of Alex on the bridge. Once we realized that he was concerned for her safety, I became ever more concerned for it as well.

And since we'd reached the edge of our placemat (our map), and our scooter batteries were only half full, it was time to double back. Best thing about the return trip was that we knew where we needed to stop for good photos, and where we could go full throttle to zip past the vendors who otherwise might be able to catch us to try to sell us another something. ["She she, ke shur e jing yo" is a phrase I had to learn, roughly translated meaning "Thank you, but I already have it" although there were better phrases like "No" which also worked. Alex told me the "Go away" phrase, but I can't bring myself to say that to an old toothless bent- over woman, even if I know she's cursing me after we gave her a smaller bill than I initially reached for, as happened in the Muslim part of Xi’an.] We got back to town, missed getting flattened by the busier street again, and walked our scooters through West Street, the pedestrian market which actually has nice merchandise and a softer sell [but of course has its share of pickpockets....hairs on the back of our necks stood up as three locals took an uncanny interest in our rental scooters and I detected a few pats on my pockets, which left them unsatisfied as I then brusquely pushed past them and we returned to our hotel.....turns out one of them followed us all the way back, rather disturbing, but what can one do? Even pickpockets are entitled to "gwang y gwang" or "take a stroll"].

Since we'd only had the scooters a relatively short time, rather than the entire day, Alex convinced Sophie to let us have three bicycles for no charge at some future point during our stay. We had another great lunch at our favorite Yangshuo noodle place (2 orders of garlic beef noodles and 1 of garlic, green onion slivered potatoes---yumm---and 3 tall beers), the grandma proprietor smiling proudly that we'd returned again for a meal. The chef was proud when we told him "hun how" (I'd reconfirm the pronunciation, except that Alex has pulled a cover over her head and she’s grabbing a quick nap), whatever we said, at the time it worked and he understood we were saying "good job" or delicious. I still can't get over how excited these Chinese get when Alex starts talking their language. It's the look of relief that somebody might show if you dropped the double barrel shotgun you'd been pointing at them to the ground and admitted that it hadn't even been loaded. So, in addition to relief, it's excitement that they show, and then they launch into a high-pitched fast paced squawk and engage Alex, who "deluxe bun cha joes" them right back. (Deluxe bun cha joe is one of my favorite meals at a famous Tulsa Vietnamese restaurant.)

Tuesday afternoon shopping was surprisingly enjoyable and productive. There were no crowds (it was getting hot) and it helped walking from umbrella to umbrella looking for shade. Alex and Karen were showing that they'd become quick studies, and were only paying three times the absolute minimum price rather than ten. They were making friends of the vendors yet not being ripped off, which Karen really enjoyed. And I was able to play "secret Asian man" while watching Alex's back side to make sure her backpack was off limits to any of the shady characters (which could be any of the people I didn't directly know or recognize....I now proudly say recognize, because after only nine days in this country, I am beginning to be able to tell the difference between the different Asian body types and favorite, of course, being the petite, delicate very feminine and smiling people who for an instant seem to create a refreshing and wondrous moment in their glances, or maybe it's just that their eye shape makes me think they're always smiling). For whatever explanation, it's something of which I'll never get enough. It's like a garden in full bloom, in spite of the reality of how hard life must really be around here.

Exhausted and sweaty, we went back to catch a short nap before we were to be picked up at around five o'clock by the hot air balloon people. We drove west this time, exploring a different part of town, and were saddened when our hot air hostess conveyed our pilot's recommendation that we wait until morning. [The photo I have of a building thunderhead at sunset is evidence that he was indeed wise to cancel the afternoon flight.] So we were driven back to town.

Before we went off in search of some mojitos, we just had to locate this really cool thing (I can't tell you what it is yet, sorry, it’s a surprise). We'd seen it used at the Rosewood Inn, and our hostess Sophie told us the going price. So we went to a rather contemporary market (imagine a Walgreen's, except with uniformed attendants standing at the end of each aisle ready to serve you and "do their duty"). Alex tried to explain what was that we were looking for, and we didn't think we would be successful at communicating this rather unusual request, when a puzzled young lady directed our gazes down to her feet, where these items happened to be located in a big, disorganized stack. We scared the poor kid, literally almost out of her shoes, when we exuberantly shouted, "That's it!" All the poor Chinese in the store thought we were nutty Americans when we bought as many of the things we could get our hands on. The Chinese are a very observant people, for we were rather nutty.

Alex and Karen had western dinners of sandwiches while I had a fried egg plate and some rice, but all in all, the drinks were less satisfying than our previous evening at Bar 98 (which we'd tried, but the weather had cleared enough that they had closed the bar and packed up the patrons to trek out to the river for drinking and festivities with the light show). We would have followed, but we knew that we'd be called at 5 am the next morning by the balloonists, which indeed turned out to be the case.

Adventure over Yangshuo

Monday, May 25, 2009

5/25 - To Yangshuo (Take the Li River cruise)

We awoke Monday early so that we could enjoy a powerful shower (it was the one and only nice thing I can say about the Zhongshan) before a trip back for an alleyway breakfast of noodles, sticky buns, sesame buns, and rice wrapped in banana leaves. I say "buns" for lack of a better term. I suppose donuts would be more accurate, but these are much, much denser and not always sweet. We don't know really what we're eating most of the time, but if there aren't obvious signs of moving insects, we'll try it, and more often than not we're pleasantly surprised. We check out of the hotel a few minutes before our bus is to pick us up to go to the river, so that the hotel staff can do a quick inventory of the condoms and sodas and confirm that we didn't run off with any. We got a full refund of our room key deposit of CNY100. Deposits are standard at non-Western hotels, and all make copies of your passport when you check-in.

We got our final view of Guilin 's rainy season from a small bus with large windows which, of course, had been arranged by Jerry on the previous day. Forty minutes later and we were boarding one of a dozen tourist boats bound for Yangshuo. I don't know why we thought there might be only one ship. I assume the constant bombardment of "buy your cruise tickets now, to get good seats" or "before they are sold out" had succeeded in providing that sense of urgency needed to close the sale. We quickly darted up the stairs for the top floor of the boat so that the three of us had the front, right (in our opinion, best) spots to spend the next couple of hours standing in the intermittent mist.

Alex and I took a few www. A few hundred. At least. The scenery was breathtaking, although none of the photos will have enough contrast to show the incredible beauty of this area. I found it difficult, however, to imagine the horrors experienced many years ago by those poor souls who found themselves fighting a war in jungle conditions. I don't know if the people of this area harbor any ill will toward Americans, but some of the looks I feel I get from some of the older locals could be explained by a latent animosity.

I'd tell more about the boat trip, the surprisingly decent lunch and Portuguese, Mexican, and German lunch guests, but I know I've been writing too much as it is. We pulled into Yangshuo a bit early, so we had to walk the most impressive gauntletwe had yet encountered of vendors of every sort. To make matters worse, we had nobody to greet us, so we started wandering a maze of village streets and alleys without a map or the aid of any street signs. I set down my backpack in order to retrieve what little paperwork I did have on the "Rosewood Inn" and was visited by a two-foot tall dwarf asking for money. Although we now had an address, we still didn't know what street or town we were in. Fortunately, we navigated by remembering the small river which we'd seen emptying into the Li at the docks, and we wandered back towards it to be greeted by a rather encouraging sign entitled Rosewood Bar. A nice young lady walked us along the river until we came to our final destination at the Rosewood Inn. And we are quite pleased.

The hotel staff introduced themselves, so I introduced each of us. After meeting the petite Sophie, who apologized profusely that she hadn't been there forty-five minutes early to greet us at the boat, we met Annabel and other staff members. The owner, Sam Wong, called and I spoke with him on the phone as he also apologized that he was in Guilin and couldn't be there for our arrival, but that if we needed ANYTHING, to ask his staff and they would get the message to him and he would see that our needs were met. Before committing to four nights, we asked to see the room (which turned out to be quite lovely). We could have been comfortable in this room for a long time (with the exception of the millions of mosquitoes in this area)---three beds (unlike most beds in China, these were actually soft), a sitting area, balcony on the little river, tv, fridge, computer, tasteful decor, and oversized bathroom. As soon as we checked in, Sophie visited us with a gift of a plate of local fruits and we have a pleasant conversation as she shyly giggles and smiles. "It is my duty" seems to be a prevalent theme everywhere in this country when somebody does her job well. Obviously, there have to be some slackers, but most of what I've seen are lots of guards at attention, waiters and staff standing alert ready to assist, even baggage handlers at the airport standing in a line waiting for a plane to finish taxiing so that they could get the bags as quickly and efficiently as possible. Anyhow, we're comfortably resting in our little room at the Rosewood Inn.

Alex has planned the next few days (I can tell you in hindsight that she really did her homework). Karen's with Nora, and I'm writing lots of lots of stuff in case anybody has time to hear about our time in China.

Of course, we've been thinking about all of the things our kids back home have been doing. It's so disorienting trying to make the 13 hour adjustment in time (and culture). This has been quite an experience for us, so I just had to write about it. We've been thinking of Amanda finishing up teaching at Holland Hall last week, and Jamie finishing up seventh grade this week. Make sure, Jamie, to tell all your good teachers how much you've enjoyed them. Ignore the one dolt. You'll remember many of them the rest of your life. I do.

I reminded the girls to keep in touch with us via e-mail, now that we have regular access to a computer again. At six cents a minute, I told them to feel free to call long distance (Sophie would be happy to come get us). We'll be here for the next four days. We are mosquito food. And we're off (we hope) to get our first martini since leaving the US.

Yangshuo is quaint