Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Happy Mid-Autumn Festival

Tuesday night all of China celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival. Traditionally this day, which occurs on August 15 of the lunar calendar, celebrates the harvest. It is also associated with a legend about the beautiful Change E who drank a potion to become immortal and she flew to the moon where she lives forever with her white rabbit. The reasons she drank the potion vary depending on the legend, but they all revolve around the fact that her husband Hou Yi was never home and she was tired of being alone. It doesn't seem like it really helped her much as there is not much entertainment on the moon. Mid-Autumn Day is similar in many ways to our Thanksgiving. Families travel from far distances to their homes to be together, eat a large meal and then spend the evening outside making wishes on the full moon and eating beautiful mooncakes and fruit. Our small apartment is overrun with both items at the moment. If I only had an oven or sugar and cinnamon I could do something with 10 pounds of apples. We find the moon cakes hit or miss-a bit like Bertie Bots Every Flavor Jelly Beans. Sometimes you bite into one and it is sweet bean paste with an egg, other times meat other times mint. I have to admit to being a bit gun shy!

We celebrated the Moon Festival by venturing into the other old town and having dinner. After dinner we joined the crowds (many of them our students) dancing around the bonfire in the main square. It was part primitive and part U2 concert.

Happy Mid-Autumn Day, and we thought of you all under the full moon.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Don't Be Fooled by the High Heels

When our liaison Barbara invited us on a hiking trip on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain we thought sure, what a great way to see the mountain and to get to know more of the Chinese teachers. How hard can it be? They wear stockings and high heels everyday and shade themselves from the sun with an umbrella. As we were soon to learn, Barbara is a hiking machine, even in a nice sweater with faux pearls on it!

Our party of seven took off from a small Naxi Village at about 8,800 feet. We were passed by a string of chain smoking Chinese tourists riding donkeys. Their guides, also smoking, seemed rather bored of the trek. There were a few resting places along the way where the horses and tourists could get a break from one another. We doggedly climbed our way through the forest until we were funneled past some small shacks where the locals demanded our 100 Yuan entry fee (each). Being local teachers helped cut the price a bit and Barbara's fluency in the local Yunnan dialect helped even more. After 5 minutes of heated exchange we paid 20 Yuan total-a far better deal than 700 Yuan.

From here we made our way up above treeline. Our next resting area was a small stone hut littered with garbage and used oxygen bottles. These small portable bottles are sold all over and are generally right next to the large surplus Army parkas that are rented to climb the mountain. At this point our party divided in its goals. Steve, Li on Steve's back, Barbara and I humped our way up some steep alpine terrain and called 13,198' (Just over 4,000m) our summit for the day. The mountain exceeds 18K. We were happy no one incurred grievous injury on the steep descent. Finally, after 9 hours of hiking, 9.2 miles and 3637' of gain, we have learned that looks can be deceiving. Never underestimate a woman in heels.

We also learned that the best thing to have for dinner after such a day is a recently slaughtered chicken in a pot of bubbling broth-also known as a traditional hot pot dinner. If you could get over the "parts" floating in the broth, it was wonderfully delicious. Barbara and our companion Judy both complained that they do not like to buy chicken at the market because they cut the feet off and they love the feet. They also both agreed that the stomach was by far the best part. We were generous enough to let them have those delicacies and the heart and the liver and...

Today, we rested.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Jade Belt Walk

We decided to test our language skills by purchasing bus tickets and heading south for the weekend. Luckily Steve managed to buy tickets for the right bus on the right day to get us to Dali on Friday afternoon. The bus ride was in and of itself an experience. Our driver must have been paid more to arrive early because he spent the three hour drive passing every car, bus or object on the road with great vigor and liberal use of the horn. Most of the time you couldn't tell if there was oncoming traffic in the other lane because of the sharp corners on the mountain roads-I suspect he figured we had the mass to win whatever collision we sustained. Li vomited twice.

We arrived in Dali in a downpour and the moment we walked away from the bus we were hounded by people trying to get us into their taxi or wanting us to stay at their guesthouse. This is ubiquitous in Dali. As foreigners we were magnets for people trying to sell us things. It was fairly unpleasant and made us reluctant to spend much time wandering the streets. After a 30 minute walk in the rain through town we found our quaint guesthouse and had a nice quiet meal and a well deserved rest.

Dali is nestled at the foot of the Cangshan mountains-a spectacular series of sharp peaks and steep valleys full of waterfalls. We were able to take a chairlift (Made in the USA) from town up to the Zhonge Temple on the mountain. From here we walked 10K along a path known as the Jade Belt Walk. I still cannot fathom how this path was constructed. The terrain is ridiculously steep and muddy. This walk took us in and out of the valleys. It was a misty day so the clouds played up and down the slopes and occasionally we would get a peek of Dali below us. At the halfway point we found a group of Chinese tourists at the Seven Maiden Dragon Pool. This is a series of seven clear pools set in the bedrock. The granite slopes are steep and wet, so steps have been chiseled into the rock to provide purchase. Nevertheless we saw a woman in three inch spike heels trying to jump across a small waterfall. She missed and was only kept from sliding down the falls by three people who caught her. We decided we should leave before more interesting things happened.

The hike ends at Qingbi stream which forms the "Grand Canyon" of the Cangshan mountains. Li walked all but the last mile! From here we took the Gondola (made in Austria) to the base of the mountain. After being pursued by a van driver for 10 minutes we walked down to another Temple 45 minutes away. This Temple is built around a large stone. Legend has it when Dali was being invaded the Goddess of Mercy turned herself into and old woman and appeared before the invading army carrying this large stone. The army panicked and retreated thinking that if the old women were this strong, the men must be ferocious. Needless to say we all slept well after a long day of hiking and exploring.

On Sunday we braved the markets and the hawkers buying some small pieces of local Dali marble. More interesting are the thick city walls which surround the old town and the gates that guard the entrance. The most prominent local ethnic minority group are the Bai people. Li was very excited to buy some traditional clothing as a souvenir and didn't seem to care as much as I did that it was white!

Our bus driver on the way home was clearly in league with our first bus driver, but Li only vomited once. Steve did have to help the woman sitting next to him who was very green and sweaty and was trying hard to avoid using the "motion sickness" bag he offered her.

We called the weekend a success.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Your Daughter is Beautiful, Only 100 Yuan for the Bracelet Please

The theme of our last two adventures is the incessant aggressiveness of the local vendors trying to sell us everything from jade jewelry (which Li loves and wants) to pomegranates (which Li also loves and wants). Lijiang has become such a tourist attraction that a large part of the local economy is built upon the tourism trade, specifically the souvenier side of things. Though we are being increasingly recognized around our local shops as here for the duration, when we go into town we look just like all the other foreign tourists who couldn't possible live without scarves and bracelets. (That's not to say we won't end up with scarves and bracelets of course!) Li's insightful comment was, "I think that man wants you to buy everything on the table."

We spent many hours last Friday wandering the streets and alleys of the Old Town. Lijiang is divided into two distinct halves, the Old Town cobblestone lined streets made with traditional mud brick construction (that survived the 1996 earthquake remarkably well) and the new town which is a rapidly expanding sprawl of concrete buildings. The Old Town is full of delightful restaurants, guest houses and small shops. It is easy to wander for hours. Li is an immediate attraction to many people and we are becoming more adept at explaining that she is our daughter, she is 5 and she was born in Guilin, Guangxi. Li is usually very shy during these interchanges. One of the women merchants tried to coax her 6 year old son out of the back of her shop to say hello to Li and he insisted on hiding under a blanket and peering out occasionally. I guess we are not the only parents forcing our children to do things they don't like!

On the weekend we pedaled our bikes 5K to BaiSha, a small traditional Naxi village. Somehow we missed all the touted sites, like the BaiSha Frescoes, and instead found ourselves pushing our bikes along muddy tracks in search of an elusive temple. At one point we were "redirected" by two stern looking Naxi women, we were clearly on a path towards someone's home! We finally called a halt to our search when faced with miles of uphill switchbacks on our one speed bikes. We retreated back to the village and bounced our way along cobblestones through multiple small villages until returning back to our apartment. Having missed the main sights and having been unable to find the old landing field used by the Flying Tigers (my grandfather was a supply office with the Flying Tigers) we have decided BaiSha merits a return trip.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Scent of China

I think my enduring memories will ultimately be the rich and varied aromas of China. Some come from the restaurants, some from the streets, some from the people, but the most interesting ones come from the grocery store. I had to resist the temptation to buy garlic scented dish soap and hand lotion fragranced with the smell of sheep placenta. Yes, I sniffed it, and it didn't smell too bad.


Li is surviving and and perhaps even thriving in kindergarten. Monday, our "driver" picked up Li and Shana at the front gate of the University to take Li to school. Li was pretty nervous and broke down in tears during morning exercises with 200 kids shouting in Chinese around her. Shana spent the morning trying to get comfortable sitting in small plastic chair with Li and little cow on her lap. Lots of the little girls were vying for the opportunity to sit next to Li. Even the big rough and tumble boy wrestled a pear from other kids and brought it over to give to Li. She did loosen up during snack time, no surprise. We opted to leave right before nap time when she was in a reasonable mood-we didn't want to push our luck. Tuesday Shana and Li again were driven to school and Shana was able to leave Li in her classroom while she went to pay the bills. Approximately 9 hours later Li arrived at the front gate of the University riding in the front seat of the mini-van with no seatbelt. She was all smiles and happy. A big sigh of parental relief. Her driver in Mr. Zhou (Joe). He smiles a lot and we pull out our phrasebook to communicate.

Li's description of kindergarten included the following highlights:

Li says "I'm good. Today at Kindergarten I had a good day at school. My favorite part of the day is eating. I met Amy, Lucy, Linda. (English names)" She said that she spent nap time in a tent with a girl named Linda and they talked the whole time. The teacher kept telling them to go to sleep but they kept talking. We asked what they talked about and Li said "I don't know, she speaks Chinese." That somehow explains it.

Wednesday we decided to put her in the minivan by herself to go to school. She was scared and wanted one of us to be with her. Steve decided a little bribery went a long way so offered her some gum tonight if she went alone, she said she didn't want gum, he offered her some extra dessert, she also declined, then she grabbed his ear and whispered "money"! We think it stems from the little pockets on her pencil case that are just right for small change... I guess she's an American after all!

Monday, September 3, 2007

The Art of Bicycling

I thought I knew how to ride a bike. But no one ever taught me the art of weaving in and out of buses and taxis. Some streets have what passes for a bike/cart/motorcycle lane, others, well, not so much. The taxis and buses are kind enough to honk at you shortly before they run you over. As Steve describes it, you simply begin into an intersection and then maintain your speed. If you change speed to avoid obstacles (like pedestrians) it throws everyone else off. The most challenging obstacles are the British style round-abouts. Two lanes of traffic constantly entering and exiting the circle mixed with people and bikes. Li thinks it is all great fun and sits on the back of Steve's bike in her child seat eating sun flower seeds and shouting "faster sled dog!". Shana appears to enjoy the chaos of the round-abouts in that periodically she will go around one and a half times. Li is ever watchful saying, "Where is Mommy going?" I think biking also has a little similarity to winter driving. There is a time to be plodding and a time to go for it, still with the a sense of overwhelming caution. It is also amazing to see the variety of bikes, loads and people pedaling around. I am not surprised to see a biker on a cell phone holding an umbrella while navigating the streets. I wonder what the locals would think about a stationary exercise bike.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

A New Definition of Leadership

Always on the lookout for ways to define leadership, we came across the following from Owen Fashion:

"We always keep the intonation of appearance, supremacy of quality and the self nobility, are all the distinctions of a modern leader's confidence."

One Week Ago

We were frantically finishing our last minute packing enroute to Lijiang. It is somewhat surprising that after a week we almost feel like we have a routine. Unfortunately we cannot seem to figure out the inconsistent hours of the cafeteria and have eaten a lot of "ramen". You would not believe the walls of ramen at the store with interesting pictures. We have tried to avoid the ones with the pictures of chili peppers. We made our first foray to the vegetable market yesterday and bought some beautiful looking veggies. There were plenty we could not identify. We don't yet have the fortitude to buy whole dead chickens lying on plywood at the meat market. All the chicken dishes we have eaten include plenty of bone and gristle. We wonder how people would do here without some basic camping skills. The beds are about as soft as granite and without any hot water to do dishes we rely on our dilute bleach rinse. We are meeting more teachers, both Chinese and foreign. We stick out on campus so students and teachers routinely approach us to talk and a student we met in the store today helped us find a place to buy speakers. We will continue to update the Picassa picture site. We have added a bunch from our trip to the Black Dragon Pond two days ago. We didn't add the ones from all the men in their bright red skivvies bathing in the reservoir! Li is becoming quite skilled at the art of the squat toilet and loves the popsicles we found at the corner store.

Teaching the Old Fashioned Way

When is the last time all of your students automatically responded "Good Morning" in unison? It's a bit disconcerting from adults! Our first lesson as teachers was to be careful how we dressed. Black pants show the chalk dust! Our students are eager and polite with mixed skill level. Steve chose to draw maps of the United States and our travels while Shana made her students write personal ads and letters to advice columnists. Both took pictures of all their students to begin the process of learning the names of our roughly 200 students. The English names chosen by the students are fascinating. Mixed in with the mainstream are names like: Eleven, Unique, Feverwort and Cinderella. Unsurprisingly, we both received the advice to slow down our speaking...Luckily we made it to the weekend!