Monday, April 30, 2007

Ring Around the Province, Part 3: You Want to Put That Flaming Alcohol Where?

So, I've arrived in Nujiang Valley, and I've ceased to be sick (hopefully) although I'm still subsisting basically on a diet of Sprite, water, rice, bananas, and various biscuits/breads. Slowly, slowly become better and better as they say here (that sounds weird, but I'm not the only one whose grammar is deteriorating. Yesterday Tania was guilty of uttering both the phrases "one children" and "I am happy to see her when I get back.")

Anyway, when we left off I was getting pickpocketed by adorable but terrifying monkeys. The next day we spent most of our time hiking down Shibaoshan (the name of both the temple and the mountain the temple was on.) First we hiked through an area of considerable repute, which has old and very cool stone grottoes carved into the side of it. These date back to the Tang Dynasty a thousand years ago and are notable because they show Western faces with curly hair, denoting trade with countries in the West. They also have a cool story that's more modern-- during the Cultural Revolution, a time when China was against anything that had come before Communism basically and was destroying all sorts of cultural history, the Red Guard came to try and destroy the grottoes as well. But the head monk living at the temple there was friends with Yunnan's governor, and together they created a ragtag army and defended the temple with cannons. Because of that, the grottoes are some of the only remaining cultural relics of their caliber.

We passed through the grottoes as a short cut and spent the next two hours hiking down the mountain. It was absolutely beautiful, clear weather with the Shaxi valley spread out before me, green hills/small mountains emerging from the mist and a checkerboard of farmland, fallow fields, and small villages. I took longer than everyone else to get down: it was all stairs and at times extremely steep. Twice I fell and twisted may ankle-- anyone who has walked anywhere with me will know this is not an uncommon occurrence. The second time I could feel that my ankle was sprained, but I had to keep going. Lu Laoshi kept me company, chatting with me about her life before her time with SIT (she was a journalist with Xinhua, the Communist newspaper but left after the Tiananmen incident-- something to discuss during my Lijiang entry, I think) and calling me "hen bang" (really excellent) for persevering instead of giving up. My quads have never been so sore as they were after we went down the mountain, but the view and the experience, looking back up at where we had been, were worth it.

After lunch we were introduced to the village of Sideng, the main town in the Shaxi valley. It's historically important because it is the only surviving town on the ancient (and I mean REALLY ancient, thousands of years) Tibetan Tea and Horse Caravan Trail. The Caravan would come through a few times every year with provisions from Tibet and would collect supplies unavailable at higher elevations. Because of its historical significance, a Swiss company has taken an interest in Sideng and has put a great deal of money into rebuilding it responsibly and accurately, promoting public health and economic welfare. The town is pretty exquisite, very traditional with cobbled streets and lots of old courtyard-and-house compounds the way Beijing was once. But it's also very rural, and that's why we were there-- to get an idea of the rural lifestyle. My homestay, however, wasn't quite "rural"-- I stayed with a husband and wife, retired, who now run the only classy inn in town. I was basically an inn patron and, to be honest, the inn was nicer than my homestay in Kunming. We had a big screen TV, DVD player, majiang table, beautiful courtyard, shower, bathroom. I had my own room. Other people had varying accomodations-- Tania's house was nice but had cows and ducks running around. Ali's house had only mud floors and a hole in the ground. Lee's house had no bathroom at all-- he had to go in the fields.

After I got settled in in my homestay, I went with my homestay father on a house call-- he was a doctor before he retired but still ministers to a few older people in the community. He just had to give an old woman a shot. Afterward, he took a look at my ankle, which was puffed up, sore, and definitely sprained. Before I could ask what he was doing, he had gone and gotten a bottle of bai jiu (the hard rice wine, if you'll recall) and was lighting it on fire, dipping is fingers in the flaming alcohol, and rubbing it on the swollen area. It didn't hurt, surprisingly, because the flame was self-limited, but it certainly felt (and looked) a little strange. Afterwards, he applied suction cups which are a specialty of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and left them on for 20 minutes while I watched Korean soap operas dubbed into Chinese. I don't know if it helped, but it certainly didn't hurt. I asked him if he had any ice and he insisted on scraping the freezer burn off of the sides of his refrigerator. Between the two of us my ankle was much better within the next few days.

Next time: I do 15 minutes of farm work and get endless amusement from it (sample conversation: John: You's a ho! Me: I used a hoe this morning!); Shaxi life; a wonderful market

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Argus Article 4

About a month ago on a tropical night, steamy and close, I sat in a small, dimly-lit tree house in the heart of a southern Chinese jungle and listened to a familiar song (“Aqueous Transmission” by the alternative rock band, Incubus, for those who might wonder) on my iPod. This particular song was one I had listened to countless times before, mostly because of its calming effect. Whether I was in the library studying for finals or in a sleeping bag on the Montana Plains, the quiet refrains of the chorus fading into a full two minutes of the sounds of frogs never failed to help me stop and take a breath.

On that particular night as I listened, something thrilling happened: as the song drew to a close and the chirping of frogs filled my ears I had the sensation of amphibious harmony, a depth of sound I had never before noticed. It was then that I realized that the frogs chirping in the jungle surrounding me were mingling with the comforting, familiar sounds at the end of the song. It was a moment of sublime cooperation between the old culture I had left behind and the profoundly new settings with which I had surrounded myself. I’ve written in this column before about the frustrations of cultural difference, but such bridges over the cross-cultural gap are also notable and, indeed, essential in the life of a person living in an alien place.

Not all moments of cultural cooperation have settings as seemingly mystical as a tree house in the middle of pristine jungle. In my home stay in Kunming I often experienced fleeting moments of such cultural symphony, mundane but still powerful: my home stay mother would call her daughter for dinner, and the daughter would reply “Coming!” When the exchange was repeated again thirty seconds later, I would hear echoes of home. And when I would forget to turn out the lights to my room, the bathroom, or the kitchen, I would often find my home stay mother trailing behind me, shutting them off in my wake. Then I would feel the sides of the gap between my idea of home and my experiences abroad closing, coming together, straining to touch.

We all strive, I think, to reach across that void, to feel the other that we perceive as so different from ourselves—in anthropology we call this “exotification,”; abroad, I call it the desire to connect, to feel that sublime cultural symphony for at least an instant. And it isn’t just we, the visitors, who feel this pull toward connection. I catch a glimpse of it manifested in the embroidered shoes my Bai minority (one of 56 minority groups in China) homestay family insisted on giving me after three days of awkward but well-intentioned exchanges. I see it in the note my friend’s homestay father gave her after three similar days of silence, with the words “If you ever come back to China, welcome to Shaxi [the village we stayed in] and our home, I am very glad to have met you” written in painstaking English. I feel it in the quick and embarrassed but earnest hugs given by those unaccustomed to such contact.

And so, in a way, we are united by that pull for sublime connection, reaching across the void to face the other and, perhaps, unexpectedly, see ourselves. At a rural market in that same Bai Minority Prefecture I found myself mesmerized by Yi people (another minority in the area) who came down from the hills to buy supplies. Their colorful vests, intricately embroidered with spirals; their brightly striped skirts; their octagonal headdresses draped with black velvet—in them I saw something profoundly Other and found myself simultaneously compelled, and ashamed at my compulsion, to take pictures. As I wandered the market, inspecting corn and trying on Chairman Mao-style hats, a young Yi girl approached me, watching me with a look of friendly but potent curiosity. Reaching across the veritable rift between my blue jeans and her mountain life, I donned a cap and asked “Hao kan ma?” (“Does it look good?”) She giggled and assented, dallying to watch me wander and pack up my things, shooting me a series of shy smiles that reminded me of the things we might have in common.

It is this spark in the face of the vacuum that I think drives us to take pictures as I was, to buy souvenirs as my tripmates have as we’ve traveled around Yunnan province this past month. No doubt the Communist government would say that our woven bags, wall hangings, and photos of snow-capped mountains are indicators of our capitalist culture—and no doubt as well that this opinion would have some merit. But lately I’ve been thinking that really, behind the materialism is that same human urge, to be able to say “I was there, I felt things, I saw things-- I faced the void, and here I stand.”

Now for Something Completely Different

I know you are all expecting a new recounting of our Provincial adventures, but I'm afraid that will have to wait. I've been out for the last 36 hours with horrendous food poisoning, the worst stomach sickness I've ever had. As my mother pointed out, I was able to stave it off for 10 weeks, which is great, but it was hard to remember that when at times the night before last I had both ends working simultaneously, if you get my drift. I'm exhausted and, to be honest, a little bit daunted: we were supposed to begin our month-long independent study project today but me, Ashley, and Lisa (who are also sick) stayed an extra night here in Lijiang to recover. Unfortunately, I've had so much to get done that there hasn't been a whole lot of time to rest. Tomorrow I will head to Nujiang Valley (on the 9:30 bus... I really should have opted to go later)-- hopefully there will be internet there, but I'm unsure. I'll be able to give you the full story of our field trip then. Until then, I'll leave you with my newest Argus column.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Ring Around the Province, Part 2: Won't You Take Me To Monkey Town

Day Three of our trip around the province brought us to Dali, a small city that has been well-touristed for nigh on thirty years now, a very well-established backpacker stop. Four years ago when my family and I went to Lijiang (which is, incidentally, where I am now) the picture that was painted of Dali for me was pretty negative, and so I didn't have high expectations. Dali was indeed full of foreigners, but it gave off an air of being well-adjusted with its new identity as a sort of city-wide backpacker cafe. Very comfortable, very funky and colorful. There may be basically nothing left of the Bai culture that once reigned there, but the entity that has taken its place is tasteful and lacking the hoards of Chinese tourists I'm now finding in Lijiang.

Tania and I set out to see the famous Dali pagodas first. We took a taxi there but were informed that the fee for entrance was an exorbitant Y120, Y60 with our student IDs. Lu Laoshi had told us that it was pretty easy to get close to the pagodas without paying, and so we experimented, exploring the complex. It was fairly easy, indeed-- I went up to the ticket kiosks and pretended to look at a map while surreptiously taking pictures around the side of the divider. There was also a fair view of the pagodas from above the walls-- they are hundreds of feet tall and stand gorgeously formidable against a backdrop of dramatically lush mountains. It's strange to think that they've been standing that way for 1000 years. The view was powerful enough in the modernized valley. I can't imagine how they looked to travellers during the Nanzhao Kingdom era, when Dali was a major trading post. We spent the rest of the evening in Dali window/regular shopping (I got a fantastically Chinglished shirt), experimenting with Bai cuisine for dinner, and having dessert while a rain squall came through.

From Dali we drove about 5 hours to Jianchuan, through countryside dotted with lakes, traditional Bai settlements, and rolling hills. After a quick lunch, we set off up Shibaoshan, a Buddhist/Daoist mountain. The hike was only about a half an hour but it was pretty tough, as we were at yet higher elevation. The monastery was beautiful but very, very simple-- all the girls plus Mike and John slept in one room (much to the faux shock of Lu and Chen Laoshis) on simple cots and it was the first place I've ever been where people permanently live and there is no running water. There were two major distinguishing characteristics of Shibaoshan: 1) the grottos and 2) the monkeys. The entire temple complex is set on a set of cliffs, looking out on virgin-forested hills, and I spent some time with John and Tania exploring the grottos, filled with altars-- some of them very old and high up, some interestingly influenced with Indian iconography. The monkeys also added quite a bit of spice to the situation. Around dusk one showed up on the roof of the monastery and we were all very excited. Then another came, and then there was a veritable parade past the entrance to the monastery. We bought some feed for them and got quite up close and personal-- these are NOT shy monkeys. Case in point: on the way to dinner, I was walking down the stairs and suddenly felt something fly and land on the back of my thigh. My slowed-down brain registered that it was a monkey, interested in the contents of my pocket. I didn't have food in my pockets-- just a package of kleenex, but my pickpocket seemed happy to shred the contents, regardless. Lu Laoshi and John couldn't stop laughing at the face I had made when I realized there was a wild monkey hanging from my thigh.

The adventure with the monkeys went downhill from there. The monkeys got bolder and bolder-- when John, Keera, and Theresa hiked down the mountain to buy snacks they only came back with half of their purchase-- the rest had been looted by monkeys. We were all a little nervous about going to the bathroom, a small building past a path full of sleeping monkeys. John established himself as official Monkey Officer and carried a big stick and flashlight, leading group envoys to pee.

The next morning, after a very Chinese breakfast we drove to a separate part of the mountain to begin a long hike down to Shaxi valley. The hike was gorgeous, with incredible views of the verdant farmland and misty hills, but it was really hard. I fell twice, spraining one ankle, and had to go very slow-- my quads have never been so sore. But it was a very rewarding walk, regardless, and Lu Laoshi called me "Hen bang" (really excellent) for persevering, rather than giving up.

Next time: My "rural" homestay; I get flaming bai jiu (rice wine) rubbed on one body part-- guess which on!; an amazing Market

Monday, April 23, 2007

Ring Around the Province, Part 1: Weishan and Weibaoshan

It's difficult for me to start at the beginning like this, being where I am both in body and completely in mind-- Zhongdian/Gyelthang, the beginning of the Tibetan world, has consumed me almost completely. But I still feel it's important to go in chronological order.

Our first day of travel was the longest, almost 7 hours, but I didn't mind. I passed the time listening to my iPod (what a godsend in terms of culturesickness), watching the scenery change, and teaching John car games. At long last we reached Weishan, the capital of the ancient Nanzhao kingdom (which used to cover parts of Yunnan and Gansu provinces as well as Burma and Laos). Weishan is a lovingly restored village in the heart of a Bai-Hui Autonomous Prefecture (that means that, at least in theory, the Bai and Hui minority people there get some power over their own affairs). It's been around for a thousand years looking about the same way and we had a great time exploring the cobbled streets and ancient teahouses. At night, John, Tania and I went exploring and ended up in a kind of city square. There, at least 50 children played on a large monument to dead Communist soldiers and elder Bai women danced in the warm evening air for exercise.

Tania and I joined in the dancing, learning the steps as we went along, but quickly found ourselves winded-- the elevation was taking its toll even then. Emerging from our dancing bubble we discovered that John had become the object of some attention, and he was running around the square being trailed by all 50 children of all ages. Ultimately we quelled their hunt with promise of songs and spent the next few hours teaching them to dance (the chicken dance and macarena), singing them songs (from Disney to the Beatles) and watching them dance and sing in return. When we finally decided we'd had enough, it took a full half an hour to detach ourselves, whereupon we met up with some other programmates at a hole-in-the-wall bar with a 200-year-old well in the middle. I enjoyed picturing this well in use, the source of peoples' water, long before even the Civil War.

Up bright and early the next morning, we piled into the van for the short ride to Weibaoshan, a Daoist mountain in the area. The mountain is positioned on a land drop off so that even though one feels one hasn't ascended too dramatically, the view from the road is at times akin to one out of a plane window. Weibaoshan was very peaceful. We spent our time there exploring the temples-- a Daoist Master gave us an amazing Taiji demonstration-- and hiking around enjoying the arrestingly gorgeous views (although again the elevation took its toll.) After dinner we took some cookies and sat on the steps of the temple entrance, watching the sun set magnificently over the trees and surrounding mountains. A few hours later, Ali, Tania, John, and I sat on those same steps looking at a fantastic display of stars-- the first Chinese stars I've ever seen.

Next time: Dali-- the world's first and only city-wide backpacker cafe and Shibaoshan, where a monkey picked my pocket.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

On top of the world

Guess where I am! I bet you can't. The answer is Tibet. Well, it's not what China says is Tibet (here referred to as the Tibetan Autonomous Region or TAR) but the people here are vastly ethnic Tibetan, there's Tibetan on a lot of the signs, there are yaks everywhere, and big effing mountains. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

We're headed to have a tour of the city we're in, Zhongdian (also known in Tibetan as Gyelthang or in horrible tourist as Shangrila) but we'll be here three days and there's internet! So you can expect a full update soon.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Wild Wild East

We've been on the road three days now, to Weishan, Weibaoshan, and today to Dali. Rural Yunnan is amazing. Really beautiful. I've already had some great times, playing with many many small children, learning to dance with old Chinese ladies, watching the sunset on a Taoist mountain. I have about 30 seconds left in this internet bar and I don't know what I'll have internet access again-- we leave tomorrow morning for a remote Buddhist monastery and then move in for a 4-day rural homestay. But I promise an update soon.

To everyone who's been emailing me-- please don't think your letters and notes go unnoticed. They often make my day, and when I have more time I promise to write you back. Thank you all and much love.

Monday, April 9, 2007

A Day in the Life

The past several entries have been devoted to my (considerable) adventures in Xishuangbanna but I've now been back in Kunming for about a week and a half and am settled in nicely to a modest homestay about 3 minutes' walk from campus. Very convenient. I thought I would talk a little bit more about my day to day life here instead of the Extraordinary Adventures (although I have my share of adventures just here.)

I'm living with a little old lady (well, she's actually not really old, only 59, but she very much exudes an aura of little-old-ladyness) and her 24 year old daughter in a little apartment with a nice park in the middle of the complex. The daughter, whose name is Su, recently graduated from the University where I take classes and is looking without success for a job. That's a fairly common issue among educated young people here.

I wake up every morning at 7 AM to get to class by 8. There isn't really a sink in the bathroom (which has, glory be, a Western toilet) so I brush my teeth in the sink overlooking the little park. I get dressed and my Ayi (that's the word for "Auntie") insists on making me breakfast. On the first day she made me rice noodles, but although I was polite about it I think she could tell I wasn't a big fan. Since then she's made me oatmeal and, on alternating days, this odd bread stuff and cakes stuffed with red bean paste. I like the paste, but the bread is laced through with this weird fuzzy brown stuff that tastes terrible. I tend to spread lots of honey on it and then eat lots of oatmeal. Lately she's also made me these strange gnocci-type dumplings stuffed with coarsed brown sugar and soaked in something sweet, with what she says are flowers floating around. Every day is a culinary adventure in that house, and I've (of course) never eaten so much homemade Chinese food. They've finally come out and admitted that they're trying to make me as many different foods as possible so that I get to experience all China has to offer. We also eat a lot of homemade fried rice, which is delicious. On the first night, they teased me because I hold my chopsticks wrong, but I've been getting better.

My relationship with my Ayi is very cute. She always has a smile on her face when she sees me (I wonder if I amuse her somehow) and we've gotten a nice little routine down. When I come out of my room (which is modest but comfortable with a biggish bed, a desk, and a closet) in the morning she says "So you got up?" to which of course I say yes. Then she asks me how I slept and what time I got home last night-- when I want to go out with my friends at night to do fun things or homework at a cafe, I take the keys with me because Ayi goes to sleep before 10 and Su, although part of the family really, has her own apartment in the building next to ours. During breakfast I usually (for lack of better topics) ask Ayi what she's doing today-- she's retired and so usually the answer is "not much." She cleans the house, watches TV (Su and Ayi LOVE to watch TV, especially this one American Idol type show where Westerners sing Chinese songs), goes to the vegetable market next door to buy produce, and has lately been travelling to the other side of Kunming to help her younger sister move. When I'm full she'll tell me to eat more until I have assured her that I'm really done, and then she'll usually tell me that I should be wearing more clothes because it's cold out (regardless of the fact that usually it's 65 degrees outside. Actually, the past several days it's been pretty cold and rainy, but that's beside the point.)

I walk to morning classes through our apartment complex, passing people doing morning exercises outside and sometimes an en masse English class (Teacher: "Repeat after me: do you have any cigarettes?" What sounds like 80 People: "Du yu have an-ee cig-rets.") I come back and have lunch with Ayi and Su, which is always homecooked and a great majority of the time is delicious. I've been lucky, because other people's host families have made them very spicy food (it's the local palate here) but they've been very understanding and only chided me gently when I say something is too spicy-- most of the time it's delicious. With every new food they ask me "Can you eat this?" and I finally figured out that that really means "Do you like this?" but that it's not polite to say you don't like something someone else has made for you. Mostly I've been able to remain flexible. They haven't cooked me cow stomach or whole frogs like Tania's family has.

I've been really interested in the cultural differences and similarities I've found while living in my homestay. Some things are very much the same-- Ayi says "Su! Dinner!" and Su responds "Coming!"... only to be repeated thirty seconds later. And Ayi follows me around turning off the lights I forget and leave on, just as my mother does at home. I've explained that it's a bad habit and that I'm not forgetting on purpose, but I still feel bad about it. And then again, the differences are also pretty very significant. For one thing, there's the issue of slippers. One doesn't wear shoes in the house, something I knew before I came. However, one also doesn't wear slippers in one's room but leaves them outside the door. So I've gotten very good at taking my shoes on and off quickly. I've also gotten really good at stairs-- we live on the third floor and that's actually pretty easy in comparison to John's enormous 4-floors and Tania's 5-floors. Glutes get quite a workout here. When I come home at night all the lights are sound and motion sensitive so I have to clap my way up the stairs.

Dinners are interesting in my homestay, too, because we often get into cultural exchange discussions. One night I ended up explaining the racial relations situation (in simple terms, of course, my Chinese isn't that great) in the US. Another night I spent the meal assuring Su and Ayi that Americans don't eat chicken feet, pig ears, tails, or stomachs. "But that's the best part! What a waste!" they kept saying. Su speaks some English, which I thought was going to be a problem because I want to practice my Chinese as much as possible but as it turns out it's just been a boon because she can translate when I don't understand something. I teach her new vocabulary, too, as our conversation transitions from English to Chinese and back, and Ayi often repeats the words too. Her accent, as condescending as it is to say, is adorable. Having the first thing I say when I get up in the morning be Chinese has been an interesting experience, and I've started dreaming in Chinese sometimes, which feels pretty cool.

I've had some adventures in Kunming without the aid of exciting travel. One weekend Tania's host family drove us to a hot springs in the countryside of Kunming, a beautiful and relaxing getaway. Another day they took us to the bird and flower market which actually is mostly animals and plants. That was kind of depressing because they had so many really beautiful dogs that we were not allowed to cuddle. John's family, however, has obtained an adorable seeing eye puppy, so we met our animal cuddling needs there. John's family also has an automated majiang table, and one night his mom schooled us in the art of majiang (I needed a refresher.) I think I can actually play, although I'm fuzzy on a few of the rules.

Last weekend I also had adventures-- on Sunday morning I did aerobics/dance with my two Chinese teachers who are 27 and 28 respectively but with whom I've made friends. I thought it was going to be terrible and conspicuous but it was actually a lot of fun and the gym was way nicer than the one I use at home. It had a juice bar and internet cafe inside! Later that day John, Kailey, and I went and taught English for two hours to 12-15 year olds. We taught them simple games like Telephone and Simon Says and got paid Y150 for it. Great fun.

We're leaving tomorrow for a huge adventure around the province. I feel sad (I'm leaving my teachers and Diana behind) and anxious and excited. The next time I write will be from the road.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Argus Article 3

It's been three weeks since I arrived in China, and our rusty van continues to carry our group down winding country roads, but now I don't look out the window so much anymore. I've found myself stabilizing, getting comfortable in the most foreign circumstances. Nevertheless, the differences here are continually overwhelming, and I am constantly faced with the cultural discrepancies between China and United States. The bed I sleep in feels too hard; I look different than the people I pass as I walk to class, and their curious stares say as much; I eat unusual food using new utensils; the stores sell sometimes outlandish merchandise and the signs advertising these items use a foreign writing system whose depths I am just beginning to plumb. But I've found that, after a while, some things have become more comfortable. Somehow, I think it has to be that way. As humans we seek out oases of comfort in this unfamiliar desert.

My classmates and I discovered a street lined with coffee shops serving Western Food (or, to be more accurate, the Chinese version of Western food-- quesadillas, cheeseburgers, and a healthy helping of grease.) There's a little baozi (dumpling) restaurant I've found, really just a few mismatched benches and rickety tables piled high with dumpling-filled woven bamboo steamers, where you can get enough lunch for two people for Y6 (about US$0.75). I go there before I check my e-mail next door at a perpetually smoky internet cafe. I'm used to strangers calling out a cheerful, heavily accented "Hello!" to me when they pass me on the street; I know the protocol for bargaining to buy meat kebabs, jewelry, or tiny cacti from the vendors that line the streets.

Lead a life so sodden with strangeness and eventually you start to adjust to people looking at you curiously, staring, and pointing. You get used to the feeling that everything is profoundly different: even that sensation of the alien begins to seem the same. And so it is that on recent bus rides to different parts of the city I've found that I don't feel quite so obligated to look out the window. But at the same time, I wonder if this slow numbing (they call it "acclimation") is altogether good. I came all the way here to this place on the other side of the world-- shouldn't I always be seeking to absorb more?

But then just when I'm convinced that my New York Times crossword book now holds sway over any horse carts or Buddhist temples the streets might offer up, there is a change in the scenery, or something more imperceptible than that, and everything is washed again in a sheen of newness. This past weekend I went on an adventure with some friends. We took an early-morning trip to a market two hours south of the city, motoring through the foggy post-dawn toward the Chinese dustbowl, tractors and endless rolling fields keeping pace with our bus. At one point, as we crawled hesitantly up a mountain slope, I could see across a wide valley to a lake that was slowly materializing out of the morning mist. A village fringed with rice paddies perched on an overlook by the lake. As I watched, minute people moved around the paddies, completing their everyday chores.

I was distracted from this tranquil scene by a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye-- two tiny horses were galloping up and down a path on the border of the paddies, running and playing. The view caught my breath, although I didn't know why, and I gasped. There was something incredibly powerful about seeing the horses, so small, so far below me, playing on a dust path in a village in rural China. It felt that I was looking at something real, truly different, something I could never see up close-- something forbidden.

This feeling leads me to two conclusions about the nature of difference and that of living abroad. One of these is related to the topic I discussed in my last column-- that of the experience of foreign culture. Perhaps the sight of those horses, that village, thrilled me with a sense of the forbidden because of the perpetual tourist experience that is international travel. For foreigners the seed of doubt is always present, even in the routines that grow up like vines around our days. We must constantly deconstruct our time here, wondering if this is the "true" experience, what roles our pre-established biases and other people's judgments of us play in this new world we perceive.

For me, then, the running horses were special because they were too far away to be touched by the taint of my own foreignness. In this way they were the embodiment of the China I can never experience-- forbidden and alien in a way I will never truly understand. And yet they can help me to comprehend and to banish the encroaching numbness of my acclimation to this country. After clambering off the bus and enduring a further ten-kilometer ride in a small van whose manufacturer had apparently neglected to equip it with shock absorbers, we arrived at a market bustling with Sani minority people who, clad in indigo, black, and magenta dress, were buying their groceries for the week. I walked through the market with freshly-minted eyes, overcome with awe at the sheer newness inundating my senses. Whether the required separation lies in the view across a valley or in a 150 kilometer bus trip, perhaps one only needs distance to be reawakened to the beauty of difference.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Banna Goes Wild, Part 2: Elephants and Monkeys

The culminating segment of my Xishuangbanna trip involved the most animals, which was pretty exciting.

As previously mentioned, I made a last-minute decision to set out for Banna Yexianggu (Banna Wild Elephant Valley) at around 6:30 PM, then found a cab to take me to the park's entrance. The woman at the backpacker cafe had told me that about Y200-250 would be an appropriate amount to pay the driver, and although that seemed exorbitant to me I decided I would be willing to pay. When the cost the driver quoted me was only 150, and I got him down to 140, I was thrilled. The driver and I chatted as we jettisoned out of the city and into the countryside, and he was so helpful with driving me around once we got inside the park that I was inspired to give him an extra Y20 (about $2.50.) Later I found out that he was grossly overcharging me and the ride should only have cost about Y100 and I felt kind of stupid and angry, but regardless, Y60 is about $8 and he definitely needed it more than I do. Being in China gives you that kind of perspective.

What followed when we got to the Yexianggu hotel lobby amounted to the most stressful part of my trip. I had to do in Chinese what I barely would be able to do in English-- establish all the technicalities of staying in a hotel, plus the complexities of getting a security guard to walk you 4 km into the jungle to your tree house. It was exhausting and I think I was probably trying their patience toward the end, but ultimately I got all the information I needed. I waited around with some random guys (who probably worked for the park, although it was hard to tell) and they were surprised to learn I spoke Chinese, proceeding to grill me about all things American, including the Iraq war (touchy.)

The security guard who was to accompany me showed up after awhile and we set off into the jungle, which was such a cool experience that I barely even minded having to trouble them with arriving after hours. We walked on the paths clearly delineated all around the park, but everything around was warm, black, humid, and close around us, the dark filled with chirping frogs and the occasional night bird. As we walked, the security guard continually looked out for elephants we might run across (the valley is home to a large family of them, although I sadly didn't see any while I was there) and I taught him some English ("run fast!" "let's go!" "You speak English very well.") Eventually our walk took us to the elevated walkway portion of the park, which traverses the canopy, and then we were there-- "Home sweet home" was the last phrase I taught him, and then I entered the tiny tree house that was to be my home for the night. Two beds and a very basic bathroom without a sink, but quite cozy and filled up with the night sounds of the jungle. I fell asleep with those sounds in my ears. It was damn close to magical.

I had heard that the Valley becomes very touristy once it's open for the day, so I got up very early and walked the paths alone, watching the sun come up through the trees to dapple jungle streams and filter through hanging vines. It was incredibly peaceful, and I had a strong feeling that at that moment the rainforest around me was all mine. I saw some beautiful flowers and a couple tiny hummingbirds. Visitors are not supposed to go off the paths, but because there was no one around I had a chance to wander a little. I didn't go to far because my sense of the rules and my sense of direction (or lack thereof) kept me obedient, but tramping through quiet jungle was fantastic.

Around 9 or 9:30 the tour groups started arriving, all of them giving quizzical looks to the foreigner wandering on her own and expressing shock when said foreigner greeted them in Chinese. I had breakfast then, treating myself to some tea biscuits and peanut butter that I had brought, plus coconut milk drank out of a straw from the coconut itself (they were selling them at a cafe in a clearing in the jungle.) It was a delicious breakfast, and I sat by a stream writing in my journal and enjoying the morning.

After eating my fill, I began the slow process of exiting the jungle. On one path, Jinuo kids my age worked at a "jungle swing" that allowed you to sail out over one of the many trickling jungle brooks. It was only Y10, so I did it-- how many times will I be able to swing in the jungle in my life? I also made friends with the Jinuo workers-- one of them called me unexpectedly last night, actually. And one of the Jinuo boys declared that he wanted to take me out on a date, but although I gave him my phone number, he never called. Next on my way I met some men on vacation from Qinghai, which is next to Tibet. We had a long conversation as we all rested from the midday heat, and they asked me all about America. One of them even sang me a Chinese song as we walked, and I sang back a few bars from "Lean on Me" (which is quickly becoming an easy fallback.)

I spent a little extra time in the park itself, which is much more Disneyfied. There was an elephant show (depressing) that I quickly skipped in favor of the animals section. There was a beautiful butterfly garden filled with huge, exotic, colorful flowers and butterflies, as well as a monkey house where lots of different kinds of monkeys hung around on an island in the middle of a lake. Some workers were holding baby monkeys, and they let me hold one (something I've always wanted to do.) It climbed all over me and then stole my glasses, which was hilarious but only because I was quick-witted and got them back before he broke them or worse. The best part, though, were the wild monkeys who were hanging around the Monkey House. They were playing and swinging through the trees (although it seemed sort of cruel to the monkeys who weren't allowed out.) I've always loved monkeys.

It was a suitable ending to a fantastic trip. I caught a bus back to Jinghong for the night, where I met up with Lee and we spent the evening at the Mekong Cafe with my Bulang friend and a Swiss traveller who was my roommate for the night. It was sad to say goodbye to my Bulang friend, actually, just like it was hard to say goodbye to Banna, but I didn't take 150 pictures in 5 days for nothing...

Next time: A Portrait of My Homestay

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Banna Goes Wild, Part 1: Countryside Goose Chases

Our story continues:

Diana and I made our way down the mountain after the Dai wedding accompanied by David, an environmentalist who works for an international NGO in Kunming, from Maine. We decided we wanted an adventure-- a woman from a backpacker cafe in Jinghong had heard that I wanted to go to Menghun and had written down a place I should go while I was there-- in Chinese. She had written the name of a town-- Mengzhe-- and then four further characters, two that Diana and I recognized and two that we did not. We decided to try our luck, anyway, and asked someone where we could find the thing on the paper. We were directed to a micro bus that would take us to Mengzhe. While we waited for the microbus, I was again accosted by an Aini woman seeking to sell me something. When I assured her that her wares were beautiful but that I didn't want to buy anything she went as far as to put a bracelet on my wrist. It was only Y1 (about 11 cents) so I bought it, but then promptly changed tacks. I asked her her name, and that was all it took for her to forget her sales pitch. She started to tell me about her village in the hills and her two children, one of whom works in Jinghong and whom she misses a great deal. That was an important moment for me, realizing that I have control over the "authenticity" and personalization of the travel experience. I can control how people view me (as a really interested person or as just another tourist) and that I can also affect my own experience as a tourist. A really important lesson.

Diana, David, and I boarded the minibus to Mengzhe not long after that with instructions to get off "at the bridge" and catch a second minibus even farther into the countryside. The ride was incredibly bumpy but it went through some really breathtaking scenery-- rolling plains, rice paddies with tethered water buffalo, hills humping into mountains in the distance. We got off the bus at the same stop as an old lady also going to Mengzhe, but she was illiterate and couldn't read the mysterious characters at whose mercy we found ourselves. The second minibus went farther away from the "center" of Menghun-- as Diana remarked, the entire trip to Banna constituted a journey away from the center, constantly redefining what we thought of as "central" and "developed." First Kunming, a city of 4 million people, then Jinghong, a provincial city. Then Menghun, a little town... then Mengzhe, the middle of essentially nowhere, wreathed by rice paddies, featuring women getting on and off the minibus carrying baskets of chickens. On the minibus, we passed the famouns Jingzhen 8-sided pagoda and debated getting off to look but ultimately decided to come back. When we got to Mengzhe, we started showing people the paper and asking them where the attraction was located. At first we were told 4 kilometers and decided to walk it, but after 2 kilometers or so when we asked again we were told there were 4 more kilometers left. We hailed the first bicycle taxi, where the taxidriver quoted us the price of "liang jian" which sounded to us like "liang jiao" or, essentially, 2 cents. We were in awe of the cheapness of this price and accepted, but when we finally got to our destination (which was, indeed, the Jingzhen pagoda back from whence we came) the driver wanted Y20, a definite ripoff. We couldn't talk him down, however, and unhappily paid him.

Meanwhile, however, we managed to solve the mystery of the Backpacker Recommendation. The first two characters were those for "Jingzhen Pagoda" and the second two were "bus stop"-- we had been directed to go on the Mengzhe bus to the pagoda but had accidently gone to Mengzhe itself. It had cost us some extra money, but ultimately the adventure, very reminiscent of The Amazing Race, was worth it, and the pagoda was quite beautiful. We caught the last bus of the day back to Jinghong and had dinner at that same backpacker cafe.

There, I made a last-minute decision. I knew that it would be hard to get back from the Wild Elephant Reserve, one hour north of Kunming, in time for my morning flight Tuesday. It was already dinner time and there were no more public busses, but I decided that given that the cost was much lower than I had expected, I was willing to pay a taxi to drive me the 40 kilometers. We made the arrangements, I said goodbye to Diana, who was heading back to Kunming, and I set off.

Next time: elephants and rainforest and baby monkeys, oh my!

Monday, April 2, 2007

Vietnot Part 3: To market, to market, to Temple

Two pieces of business before I continue narrating my Banna adventures.

1) Ha! I finally got on blogspot again! I've been able to see blogs (China miraculously unblocked them, which means I have again been following the adventures of my abroad-ing friends) but the site from which one signs into blogspot has been horribly slow for the past week and hasn't allowed me access.

2) I would like to note that this weekend will live in infamy as one in which I bought 7 seasons of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," 5 seasons of "Scrubs," 3 seasons of "Grey's Anatomy," 6 seasons of "Gilmore Girls," plus about 7 or 8 movies, all on DVD, for Y135 (about $15.) I love China.

So: More vietnot.

When we left off, Diana was throwing up wild river eel and I had never been so happy to take a shower and wash 15 miles of countryside dirt and grime off me. After she finished being sick, Diana felt much better and we caught a microbus back to Jinghong, just in time to watch the sunset over the Mekong as we wound our way through the twisting jungle-choked road. That night was a quiet one-- I took Diana and two of her tripmates who were also in Banna to the Mekong Cafe to visit Alex and Zoe (my Bulang friend, if you remember.) We were so exhausted from our trip that we passed out early, which was good because we got up at 6 AM to take an early bus to Menghun, a little town about 2 hours outside Jinghong where there is a notoriously good market.

The ride to Menghun was gorgeous, all terraced mountains and rivers running through valleys, hazy but filtered with sunlight. I was so tired that I fell asleep for part of the ride, but luckily it was the ugly part. The market at Menghun was a little disappointing, to be honest, not as bustling or as "authentic" feeling as the one we went to in Lunan. But still, Menghun's market is famous for the variety of minority peoples it attracts from the surrounding hills, and we did see our share of interesting and diverse costumes. Diana and I both bought strips of hand-embroidered ribbon to use as headbands as sashes, really beautiful and colorful. As soon as we stepped into the street, though, we were accosted by Aini women selling bags, jewelry, and hats. After a hard sell for 15 minutes, we finally gave in-- the bags were beautiful, if overpriced, and we hardly needed the money (which, really... $5 isn't that much) as much as the Aini grandmother-type that was harassing us. Diana only ahd a Y100 on her, and so the Aini woman grabbed her arm and promptly frog-marched her around town to find someone who had enough money to make change.

After we had finished exploring the market, Diana and I decided to try and find the gorgeous Burmese temple we had spotted up in the hills on the way into town. We started asking everyone where the "da miao" (big temple) was and they gave us directions. After wandering and correcting our path for about half an hour we found our way up a small mountain to find the temple huge, painted in gold leaf, and deserted. It was amazing, with views of the whole valley and not a soul to be seen, not even monks, who were lunching outside the gates. The whole thing felt very special because we had simply decided we wanted to find the temple, high and remote-looking in the mountains and then we did. Desire, action, results. It was very empowering.

As we walked down the mountain with Lee, who was also in town for the Menghun market, we were hailed by some Dai people who, as it turned out, were celebrating at a wedding reception. They invited us in, feeding us sweet sticky rice with peanuts and other less appetizing delicacies like raw cow stomach (...pass.) The men all showed us their tattoos, all self-made-- some of Buddhist symbols, temples, or just cool designs. They got Lee drunk on beer, try as he might to refrain, and we met the bride and groom. It was an exciting affair.

Alas-- I have to go to class now. When we return: The Southwest Chinese Amazing Race and the night I spent sleeping in a treehouse in the middle of the Chinese jungle.