Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Baoshan, The Stone City

The first of our three rounds of visitors have arrived! Our friend Iris managed to negotiate in country travel and successfully found the Lijiang airport. After only 36 hours in China we piled her into a car and headed off to Baoshan, the famed stone city. We chose a driver with a passenger car for this adventure thinking it would be a bit more comfortable than our usual brain jarring minivan rides. The driver is a friend of a friend and has been driving for 30 years (and he doesn't smoke!). Things were ok in spite of the drizzle that began as soon as we left Lijiang. We couldn't see much of the mountain we were circumnavigating, though we saw plenty of tourists in the ubiquitous red rental coats.

We thought it was a bit unusual that our driver didn't seem to be able to shift the car in gear as we wound our way up into the mountains on dirt road. Apparently he shard our opinion because he stopped the car and spent about 15 minutes fiddling with the gear shift and clutch trying to gear the car in gear, any gear! After many futile attempts he flagged down a ride and indicated for us to stay where we were, not that we could really go anywhere. Li explored the forest and we amused ourselves for an hour and half (I had to prevent Steve from dissecting the car with his Gerber tool) until our driver returned in a minivan. He indicated that the minivan would take us to Baoshan and he would be there tomorrow. Thinking bad thoughts about transmissions and having blind faith that something would work we piled into the minivan and bumped our way down the road towards Baoshan. Enroute we picked up an array of passengers including a woman who vomited the entire drive, which in turn encouraged Li to vomit. It's hard to blame them given the curves in the road and the precipitous drop offs. Remarkably we ended up at the Baoshan a few hours late and were escorted into our guesthouse in the stone city.

The village of Baoshan is perched on top of a stone mesa overlooking the Yangtze River. Rice and wheat terraces extend 2000 feet up valley and provide a spectacular backdrop to this landscape. We spent our weekend playing by the river, walking though terraces, taking photographs, eating and marveling at the livestock who have mastered going up and down stone steps. Each narrow alley in town offers places to explore. The only downside was "evil dog", a 10 pound mutt who charged at us repeatedly from his stoop. We were pleasantly surprised when our driver did indeed show up the next day with his car repaired. Our trip home was eventful only when the cops threatened our driver (who stopped in the middle of the road to let Iris and Steve take pictures). For any of you who know Iris, you will understand that all these things will be blamed on her.

Check out the pictures of Baoshan, it is truly a remarkable place!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The WenHai Ecolodge

Lying a mere 5 miles from us (as the crow flies of course) over a formidable ridge is a truly sublime valley known as WenHai. Access is by foot, horse or jeep. We opted for two out of three and met our guide and his trusty horse xiao hu (Little Tiger) about 10 miles north of Lijiang in a small village called Yuhu. We ascended 2000' through blooming rhododendron forests trying to keep up with Li on Little Tiger and his owner Mr. He. After a few hours we were treated to the site of WenHai Valley. We feel fortunate that the seasonal lake which fills much of the valley floor still contained some water. Within a few weeks it will be dry until the rains come again. During the steep descent into the valley Mr. He became the horse as he piggy backed Li and let Little Tiger negotiate his own way.

We arrived in time for a late lunch prepared by Mr. He's wife. Given the number of cell phone calls he answered on the way we suspect she was keeping very close tabs on his progress. We stayed at a place called the WenHai Ecolodge. It is a village cooperative run by 59 of the 65 families in the valley's villages. Various contributors have helped to fund and organize the project from The Nature Conservancy to UC Davis to the Japanese Government. Each member family must contribute a yearly quota of work and in return shares the income. The lodge is a simple converted Naxi courtyard style house, but the food was good and the beds were surprisingly comfortable. We immediately made friends with the resident dog and cat. The Ecolodge earns its name for its use of human and animal waste in biogas to create methane for cooking gas. Food is grown on site and a solar collecting tank provides hot showers. A bed for one night and three meals runs about $18/person.

The Valley is part of a larger nature preserve and we spent the afternoon wandering the grassy fields among sheep, horses, cows and pigs. Li's aim improved significantly after an hour's practice throwing mud chips into the retreating lake.

This morning we again enlisted Mr. He and Little Tiger's help to head home (that is after Little Tiger was found since he chewed through his halter and headed down valley to hang out with his friends). Today we hiked south from the valley and emerged 7 miles later at ShuHe, a small village about 1 mile from our apartment. 3 showers (one apiece) and one large meal later we feeling moderately capable of facing work tomorrow. It was wonderful to get out and hike for a change-enough buses! Li looked like a real Wyoming cowgirl.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Shaxi-Quiet and Undiscovered

As small and beautiful as our town of Lijiang is, we have come to realize how significant its tourism infrastructure is. The Old Town is flooded with "western" restaurants and full of Chinese tour groups dutifully following their guide who is holding a flag for visual identification. Most days we are glad to live a few miles north of the hubbub. We have been yearning to find someplace authentic and unaffected by tourism.

Of course authentic meant 2.5 hours by bus to the dusty town of Jianchuan and then another hour of excruciating bumps and potholes to reach Shaxi. Shaxi is nestled in a large valley full of rice and rape fields, and small villages. Its ancient market square still has the original town temple (guarded by two very large and very fierce looking red and blue gods) and theater. Every Friday the market square comes alive with Bai and Yi people. There is an animal market set up outside the town gates to accommodate the livestock trade.

We gladly stumbled out of our bright purple bus and followed a cobblestone alley to the first guest house we found. Our proprietor was a local Bai man who had 10 rooms in his traditional Bai courtyard house. As we were the only guests we got to browse through the vegetable selection to chose our dinner and hang out in the kitchen while it was being prepared. We spent a lot of time sitting in the courtyard drinking tea. Early the next morning I wandered around town with our two traveling companions taking pictures at first light. The town still boasts two of it's original gates and plenty of ancient architecture. Our host took us into some old courtyard houses and showed us into nooks and crannies. We spent a good part of the day on a 10K walk to an old stone bridge south of town. We walked through many villages and fields and answered numerous hellos. We finally found the bridge which is one of the original throughfares of the Silk Road (locally called the Tea Horse Caravan). Li played poohsticks while everyone else rested in the shade. We managed to cram into a minivan full of locals to avoid the 10K walk back and discovered the best cappuccino I have had in all of China in the market square. We drank coffee and watched kids running around playing.

The next day we returned to Jianchuan and wandered the old town which is also full of 200-300 year old architecture. Steve, Li and I stumbled onto a family making incense and watched the process while communicating in broken Chinese. Needless to say the entire process is by hand.

I thought I was getting to be an old hand at Chinese bus rides but I was still startled by the woman who loaded six 30 gallon burlap bags full of vegetables (the one nearest me was garlic) and three 40 gallon barrels of fish all into the aisle of our small bus. Emergency exit? Not. The aroma of fish and garlic combined with 2.5 hours of winding mountain roads was overpowering. Every time the bus took a sharp corner the fish buckets sloshed and splashed. I have never been so delighted to get off a bus!

Nevertheless Shaxi is a gem and still the real thing. Two nights lodging, two dinners and one breakfast for all three of us ran a whopping $17. Excellent cappuccino in the market square for breakfast-priceless!