Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Executive Hikers take on Tiger Leaping Gorge

No one warned us. They all knew what we were getting ourselves into, and still, neglected to tell us. It was mean, really. Those 'nice' folks at Mama Naxi Guesthouse in Lijiang, smiling as they booked us a ticket on their mini bus to the Tiger Leaping Gorge. 'We would like to book a ticket to..' we started. 'Tiger Leaping Gorge,' she had finished. How did they know? Probably because its the exact same thing that every traveller does. The gorge is conveniently on the way between Lijiang and Shangri-la. Hiking it is like a right of passage for a traveller in China. What they didn't tell us is that hiking Tiger Leaping is for expert, executive, experienced 'hikers' (more accurately mountain climbers) from the western Canada or Switzerland, or those who just really excel at the stair climber. Namely- not me. Nope, they didn't mention that. Not even a hint. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We figured we were in as good of shape as any other of these beer guzzling, dumpling eating travellers. Even though we would be hiking at a high altitude, we'd be ok. To quote Joel, 'that was the essence of stupidity.'

Thankfully, our good friends Joel and Sonia were going to meet us at the starting point and we were going to hike it together. By the time we got to the gorge, deposited our bags in storage, bought an entrance ticket and applied our sunscreen, it was noon. The sun was high in the perfectly clear, blue sky, and at the altitude we were at, it was close enough to burn us almost instantly- and make it really, really, hot. Our spirits were high, though, as we started the slight ascent. This was Tiger Leaping Gorge! It was epic! Joel had bought Snickers! A man leading our horse was on our tail. But he didn't want to pass. No, he and Sea Biscuit were going to follow us up the whole way, bell jingling... jingle, jingle jingle, a constant reminder that, as usual, we could buy our way out of our predicament.

The path continued skywards. What we had heard about, and were aptly terrified for, was the '28 Bends.' Twenty Eight switchbacks up a mountain. It was to take two hours. What they don't tell you is that to even get to these '28 Bends' you had climb up approximately 5730400 other pre-bend, bends. Still up a mountain. SO, more accurately, the path should be named '5730428 Bends.' It was hot and sweaty in the midday sun. We stopped at the first scenic, mountainview Guesthouse for lunch. Naxi is the minority in these parts and they make some pretty tastey bread called 'baba.' We continued, with full bellies, to hike up. 'This must be the 28 bends!' we thought as we slowly clambered up over the dusty, rocky steep path. Back and forth, up and up. Gasp, sigh, gasp, sigh, drink water! It was hot. It was steep. There was a lot of sweat. We crawled over the last rock and found a little hut selling water and not-completely-melted Snickers bars! Like it had dropped right out of heaven! What a way to celebrate our accomplishment! But, then, something from heaven surely wouldn't lie, and this little hut said 'Start of the 28 Bends' in spray paint on the outside wall. That couldn't be true! How could all these other bends not count as any of the '28 Bends?!' Who decided this anyways. I was beginning to wonder if they had just picked a random number out of the air.
I plopped myself and my ooey gooey Snickers down in disgust. I don't even really like Snickers and we STILL haven't hiked up the 28 Bends! I mean, Snickers will do in pinch, and this certainly was pinchy, but really, all those peanuts and cookie bottom or whatever it is, just take up room where there could be more chocolate! Not that this stopped me from eating it, of course. A girl's gotta get her energy. But I wasn't really that happy about it all.

We started up again. Was this bend number one? When could we start counting? What actually constituted a bend? Who counted these and had they failed grade one math? Who's idea was this hike anyways? Pondering all these questions was distracting- for about five minutes. And then it was back to the sweat-gasp-for air-fest. Does anyone actually enjoy hiking up hill? Just then Sonya called out from high above us. 'This is bend #1 up here, guys!' I almost turned around.

The scenery, though, was absolutely fantastic. Snow capped mountains, green hills, sheer cliffs, the Yangtzee snaking its way through. Really spectacular, and, despite all my moaning and groaning, totally worth the sweat and snickers.

Having survived all 592948932908528 bends, as well as crossing a decent size waterfall (which fell over a cliff) we decided that we could be promoted to 'Executive Hikers.' We did have quite the fantastic team, after all. There was The Trail Master, Sonya, or 'The Cheerster' named so because of her constant encouraging and positive attitude, her husband, Joel, or 'Snappy', as he is an observant photographer, Ram, or 'Chino-Indino', as he is an Indian who speaks Chinese, 'Miss Morocco', who is, you guessed it, Moroccan. Then, of course, Jonathan or 'Werewolf Jack,' for obvious reasons, and myself, 'Chocolaté', no explanation needed. The company along with the scenery made the Tiger Leaping Gorge the amazing adventure that it was.

Chino Indino had lived in China for the last five years. His Chinese, although he claims was mediocre, at best, was a fantastic help a lot of the time. He also let us in on some fascinating facts regarding life in China. An opportunity to speak to someone who lives in China and could view the system as an outsider was really interesting. Chino-Indino had worked as a engineer at a cell phone making factory for his first few years in China did a great job in describing what factory life was like. About 400,000 people lived and worked in this factory/village. The compound where everyone worked and lived had its own supermarkets, stores, everything- it was it's own self contained compound. Most of the employees were young and everyone slept in dorms together. He said the factory made phones for many of the cell companies. Many series of different brand names could all be manufactured, seemingly identical, at the same factory! I suppose this isn't really that surprising.
Also, Chino Indino says that it is illegal for Chinese people to live or work in a province that is not the province that they were born in, without special permission. This rule is meant to minimize the ghetto-effect of big cities around the world. If its true, imagine not being able to move around your own country? Or technically being illegal in your own country? Crazy.

Anyways, after all this chatter, we arrived at our mountain view guesthouse as the sun was lowering itself behind the mountains. The views were spectacular. The snow capped mountains encircled us and we were so high it felt as though we were in the peaks, not just admiring them from below. The best part of the evening though, was that we were going to celebrate Joel and Sonia's Wedding Anniversary! They had come across a bottle of the exact same wine that they had served at their wedding four years ago (same vintage) while travelling in Vietnam and couldn't help but pick it up for dutifully carting the bottle around for about a month, waiting for the perfect celebration. It had now, miraculously, been carried ALL the way up here, a bagillion feet, and now we were all going to get to enjoy it!! Are they fantastic, or what? We ordered a feast to go along with it and gathered around a big, round, wooden table. The wine was superb. So rich and such a treat! We toasted and reminisced, sharing Wedding stories. What a memorable night! A highlight, for sure.

The next day, the day where most of us couldn't feel our thighs, was all down hill. At least we would be working a different muscle group that I hadn't killed, yet. It was slippery and a little dangerous, with so many loose rocks. Thankfully, Cheerster Sonia kept us motivated and entertained with some of her great life stories. Slowly but surely we made it back down to the main road and felt like we had actually accomplished something! Wooohooo! We had survived (and enjoyed) the Tiger Leaping Gorge! Named so, by the way, because it is said that long ago a tiger once leaped over the gorge to escape a hunter. There aren't any tigers left there- or any wildlife, really, so I'm not sure what the moral of that story is. The moral of my story however, is clear: Don't attempt a middle-of-no-where hike without your own, substantial chocolate bar supply, or you'll end up with a strange addiction to (what you formally thought as sub par) Snickers.

ps. Happy Birthday Em!!
pps. Happy CANADA DAY!!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

My Photo Shoot with a Tibetan Monk

We were hiking up past the monastery in Litang to the grassy hills behind it when we were approached by a monk. He was smiley and friendly and couldn't speak a lick of English. From his wild hand motions in the direction of my camera, I could tell that he wanted us to take his photo. Ok. I was the tinsiest bit apprehensive as most people who request to have their photo taken (other than Han Chinese who want to pose in photos with us) ask us for money after we have gone ahead and taken their photo. But Litang has been different in so many aspects, and this seemed to be another one. So I took his photo.

He wanted to see it. He was mildly pleased, but wasn't completely satisfied. He wanted another. He posed. I snapped. Who am I to turn down such a fantastic photo opp? A monk's saffron and maroon robes set against the colbalt blue sky? Click. Click. He posed more. He pretended to read my little notebook. He pretended to meditate, to pray. It was entertaining. Mostly for myself and the monk though. Not so much for Jonathan, as he was left to fend off all the salivating stray dogs on his own, while protecting all the monk's belongings that the monk had dropped into his arms.
The real question was, why was the monk so adament that I take a slew of photos of him? We were finally able to slip away and go on the hike that we were intending to go on. On the way back down the hill, however, we were spotted by the model monk and chased down. Quite literally. He wanted more photos. After each time I took a picture, he would inspect it. He rubbed his greasy fingers all over the screen and pointed out various ways I could improve my shot. He kept pointing to the sky 'tuga,' 'tuga' he said over and over. That's what it sounded like anyways. Finally I got the idea that what he wanted was a photo of him and just the sky. I tried to convince him that because we were standing on a hill, with the ground rising up behind him, that a photo of his whole body surrounded by blue sky would be impossible. 'Tuga!!' So we went further up the hill. He framed the shots with his fingers to try and show me exactly what he wanted. Nearly a half hour later I finally managed to take a photo that he was happy with. But the question remained: 'what did he want me to do with this acceptable photo?' I tried writing down my email address and giving it to him so I could email him the photos. That didn't seem to be what he was going for. He wrote something in Tibetan in my notebook. I don't know how familiar you are with the Tibetan language- but it might as well be morse code with all the incomprehensible lines and dots. Did he want me to mail him the photos? I couldn't see how well that would go. I copy the Tibetan down on to the envelope and just drop the package in the mail? How far could it possibly get? Do I write, 'Tibetan monk, Litang Monastery, Middle of no-where, China,' on the envelope? I began to wonder if he wanted the camera. I got the idea that perhaps he wanted me to take my camera down to the village and somehow bring him back up prints. Apparently he wasn't aware where he was. Yaks were the main traffic. There was no Walmart photocentre. There were barely flush toilets. I brought his message down to the owner of our guesthouse, who was also Tibetan in hopes of shedding some light on his mysterious message. 'This doesn't make any sense,' she told me gravely, shaking her head. 'He doesn't write Tibetan very well at all.' So, maybe he wanted the photos to be displayed on our blog? That must be it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Sky Burial

Warning: This entry contains dead bodies and vultures. Seriously.

Today in Litang (Sichuan Province) we awoke at seven and then ventured out of town to attend a Sky Burial. It is a Tibetan ritual where the deceased is hacked up by 'duoden man' and then fed to the awaiting vultures. It indeed sounds gruesome to our Western ears, but it is important that this ritual takes place within an Eastern, specifically Tibetan Buddhist world view of life and death. Buddhists believe (and after what we witnessed today, I can say they deeply believe and take very seriously) in reincarnation.

Here, it is believed that the soul of a person leaves the body upon death and is reincarnated or reborn into something else; another body, an animal, etc. Buddhism thinks of the body as a shell that the soul animates. Without the soul, the body is of no worth, sentimentally or practically.

Still, it was an uneasy thought (and sight) that such a completely utilitarian view of the human body was so strongly adhered to. There is no way that someone could accuse Buddhists of not having deeply held convictions in their spiritual systems!

The sky burial itself makes practical sense for Tibetans. In Tibet, even if the land wasn't frozen most of the year, and could be dug up, the Tibetan landscape is scarce. There is no dirt to bury their dead and there is hardly a tree to be cut for a cremation. Every bit of wood needs to be used for domestic heating and cooking.

For the event itself a man, wearing a full body blue, plastic apron, walked up to a face down, naked body that was roped to a stake in the ground so to keep the birds from dragging the body around the mountain side and began taking off the flesh with a knife. All the while, five, maybe four other men surrounded the working man to keep the vultures at bay. The skin of the body was very pale, completely unlike the warm, reddish browns that we see in the faces of most Tibetans we greet in town. The children in particular all seem to have the most rosy of cheeks. Given the green light, the vultures ambushed the body and it disappeared from sight behind a spherical wall of feathers. On occasion we could see the body being pulled this way or that by the hungry fowl. In especially dizzying yet vivid moments, we could clearly see the flesh being pulled off and apart. What do the families of those passed do while all this is taking place, you might be wondering? They sit on the hill, sometimes sipping tea, chatting and vaguely watching. Its not the sad, devastating occasion you would imagine. Within thirty minutes of being given the body, all that is left as the curtain of vultures parted, was the red skeletal remains of whomever that used to be. At that point, the birds were shoved away so that the duoden could go back over and begin breaking the body apart with an axe at the major joints, hips, shoulders, neck, etc. Then, with the butt end of the axe he proceeded to crush the bones up, while mixing in a powder with the increasingly pulverized bones. The powder is then used to feed the crows that are also lurking nearby, waiting for their turn to take part in the feast. This wasn't the only action, though. There were three bodies being given a sky burial the morning we were there.

We had heard that these events could be quite good times for the deceased's family and friends, with much laughter and fun. While it certainly wasn't the solemn event that most funerals are back home, it wasn't the rip-roaring fun that we had heard about. We really weren't that surprised.

We were invited over to a circle of monks and laity and were asked to share in some yak tea and Tibetan bread. I could have done without the distinct 'yak' flavour of each item, but the genuine kindness behind the gesture was greatly appreciated. Smash, smash, smash went the axe butt onto the bones. 'Where are you from?' asked the monks nonchalantly as if we were sharing tea and bread at a cafe somewhere. Completely surreal. We choked down the yakky-yak tea and shoved our generous rounds of hard (stale or frozen, it was hard to say) bread into our pockets for 'later.'

The sky was a magnificent blue, the clouds were as marshmallows and the mountains impressively chiseled in every direction we looked. All in all this will be a memorable day for us. It gives a new perspective to the age old 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust.' bit heard at many Christian funeral services. Mulling over that well known phrase, I couldn't help but keep a short poem from creeping into my (Jonathan) head:

Sky Burial

Ashes to the vulture,
Dust to the crow,
With a fowl bowel movement
You will help the flowers grow!

K: Last summer I read a fantastic (and completely non-gory) book called Sky Burial. I couldn't put it down. Its short- a day on the dock would do. And I would highly recommend it. Sky Burial is the story of a Chinese woman whose husband, a colonel in the Chinese army, was called to help 'liberate' Tibet three months after they were married. He never returned. This woman spent her entire life looking for her husband. And this is her story. Look it up.

ps. Happy Father's Day!!
pps. Happy Birthday to Bryan, Adam and Jer!!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Slice of Tibetan Life in Litang

Litang is China's Tibetan wild west. Although not officially in Tibet proper, this small town, sits just a couple mountain ranges to the east, and 80% of its population is Tibetan. The difference is obvious and immediately noticable. It feels different, it looks different, the people are different, the language is different, the food is different, the architecture is different. Litang is colourful, friendly, lively, devout - and crawling with police. Yup. We are practically in Tibet.

Tibetan people are fantastic. They are, hands down, some of the friendliest people we have encountered thus far. Whereas the Chinese are definitely friendly, they are much more likely to stare with blank faces than to produce the wide, genuinely welcoming smiles, as the Tibetans do. You really can't help dancing down Litang's main street, grinning silly, high on life from all that good cheer. We caught on to the Tibetan greeting Tashi Delik pretty quickly- and using the Tibetan language produced great results when interacting with the locals. They just loved it.

Tibetans look tough. The women aren't tiny, dainty things like many Chinese women. They were built for living the rough, nomadic life high in the mountains and over the endless stretch of grasslands. The whole place is straight out of a National Geographic magazine. Wise elders have dark, weathered, warm leathery faces that seem to be permanently etched into huge smiles. The men wear cowboy hats and the women, colourful aprons. Young Tibetan teens zoom their colourfully decorated motorbikes around town, their music blaring, their long, black hair flowing behind them. They wave and shout greetings enthusiastically. 'Tashi Delik! Ni Hao! Hello!' Sometimes we respond with a bonjour, just to cover another language. And thats the extent to which we can communicate. Saying 'hello' in multiple languages. This doesn't seem to deter anyone in the slightest.

The Tibetans are incredibly devout Buddhists. Anyone over the age of forty is constantly fingering prayer beads. They spin their prayer wheels continuously, no matter what else they are doing. (Prayer wheels are cylindical silver boxes that are attached to a small pole and have a little ball attached to a cord to the box, so that when the silver wheel is spinning, so is the little ball attached to it- its hard to explain). We went to visit the town's massive white stupa, and were warmly welcomed, again. All around the stupa, in a covered walk-way are huge versions of these golden prayer wheels. People walk around the circuit, pushing each wheel around, making it spin. We hopped on the circuit, much to the delight of the locals and fumbled through, trying not to interfere or do anything disrespectful, spinning the prayer wheels with all our might. We were dizzy after the first round, but everyone else just kept going- round and round...

Tibetan kids are wonderful as well. You can set them apart from the local Han Chinese by their huge, rosy, red cheeks. Even the younger kids aren't intimidated by us, as most Chinese kids are (we know this because one look starts them wailing in horror like we have just been beamed down from a looming spaceship to abduct them). Not the Tibetan kids. They shout their greetings, if they are old enough to talk, or waddle on up to us to play. Like I said - Tibetans are tough.

The Tibetan's traditionally nomadic lifestyle is evident in their cuisine. Yak is largely featured, along with other, substantial, no-nonsene, frill-less dishes. From what we can tell, the food's purpose is to fill the belly and provide energy for the long day's work- not so much for its tastey-ness. Take Tibetan butter tea, for example. It has 'butter' it. In my books butter= delicious. This, unfortunately, is not the case, I was disappointed to discover. (Twice). The tea is savoury, rather than sweet, and very 'yakky.' Of course, they make a 'sweet' yak tea for tourists sake- but I think its the 'yakkness' that is the aquired taste. You wouldn't know the distinct 'yak' flavour until you've tried it- but after you know- and its everywhere. In attempt to give Tibetan food a few chances, we started ordering anything on the menu that was vegetarian. We had no idea what we would get, but that was half the 'fun.' We ordered tsamba. In Indonesia, Samba is a sort of spicy chilly, lime, garlic chutney. Yum. Tibetan Tsamba arrived, grey-ish, chunky and the consistency of cookie dough. I thought it had a slight taste of Guinness, which I didn't mention, because it would have sounded weird. Jonathan looked it up, I think because he didn't quite believe that it was actually vegetarian. In Tibet, tsamba is a barley porridge. It required a whole lot of sugar- that's all I'm saying. Finally, we ordered 'momos' because they had a funny name. Now they were a hit. Essentially, momos are Tibetan perogies - big crunchy/doughy pockets stuffed with (in this case) potato and spring onions- and served with spicy dipping sauce. Delicious.

Litang looks like what we imagine Tibet to. The sky is big and perpetually bright blue. The air is crisp and chilly. Snow topped mountains surround the valley and can be seen from every point in the city. Other than the distant mountains - everything is green. The grasslands stretch from under your feet and roll into the foothills of the mountains. Its spectacular, and a landscape unique to anything we've seen before. Yaks dot the hill and fill the valleys. Yaks are just like cows- only more fun. They are massive and super hairy with huge, sometimes crooked, horns. They wander at will, it seems, and especially like to take themselves for walks down the middle of the main highway. Only the middle will do. Pigs like to go for walks too. That's something I didn't know. Piglets especially enjoy wandering to and fro, scampering in front of speeding taxis, sniffing gutters and eating plastic.

Litang is at the wheeze-inducing height of 4,100m!! (That's about 13,000 ft for all you Imperial junkies). It's high. Breathing was sometimes hard, and walking on level ground felt like a workout. Litang's monastery sits up in the hills behind the town. Its quite the sight, especially in the late afternoon light when the warm maroon walls and gold roof glow in the sun. Locals circle the monastery three times, walking clockwise only. Not only are you already at 4,100m, but everyone then hikes UP to the monastery, and UP around behind it! We were bent over, gasping for the limited oxygen every ten steps and the elderly Tibetans would cruise past us, mumbling prayers, working their way through the prayer beads in one hand, and spinning their prayer wheel in the other! Of course, they would stop to greet us, smile and chuckle at our state, but they would then continue on, up the path like they were on some sort of relaxing Sunday stroll.

We were adventurous one afternoon and attempted to hike up the hills behind the monastery. It was a lot harder than it looked when we started out. Just when we got to the top, huffing and puffing, a black cloud rolled out overhead. Great! It's going to rain, we thought. That would suck. But no, all the way up here it didn't rain- it SNOWED! We laughed and laughed as the huge snowflakes melted on our jackets. Snowing!

We stopped in at the monastery in the early afternoon and had the pleasure of watching the young monks 'debate.' It doesn't look like you would think. The monks are paired up. One is sitting on the ground, cross-legged, book in hand. The other is performing a complicated, beautiful set of movements, which, from what we can tell, end in that monk posing a question to the sitting monk. The deep maroon robes of the dozens of monks 'debating' set against the spectacularly blue sky, high on the roof of the monastery was just magic.

As we watched, a couple of the young monks noticed our presence- more likely- they zoned in on the one thing that people all over China are united in loving- Jonathan's beard. The cluster started showing interest a ways away. But they were shy. They inched closer. Eventually, beging pushed forward by the increasingly intrigued group, one of the monks ran forward, tugged on Jonathan's beard, laughed and then ran back to his group. It was like kids tugging on Santa's beard to see if it was real. Since the brave, young monk hadn't been bitten (J: I tried!), or been the victim of any other serious injury from the scary, hairy guy, the group deemed it safe to inch even closer. Jonathan smiled and invited them to sit next to him on the ledge. That was all it took. The group rushed over and took turns tugging on Jonathan's (overgrown) red beard, laughing and discussing how much Jonathan's beard looks like an unruly Chairman Mao's (as interpretted by myself). Other monks saw all the fun and rushed over to crowd around. And again, almost instantly, Jonathan had grown a fan club. Who needs to be able to communicate when you have a big, bushy beard? The facial hair is large, unruly and red enough to be a personality all on it's own. Although, lately, this particular beard is also growing a bit of an ego. Apparently it's looking for it's own blog entry- The beard- a bridge between cultures. Wonder what a little scissor action would do to it's confidence?

Wandering up the hill, through the traditional Tibetan village on the way to the monastery was so eye-openingly Tibetan, and absolutely fantastically photogenic. Unfortunately yanking my camera out seemed completely inappropriate. There was no way this village was in AD 2011. The buildings were stone but ornate with the window and door frames colourfully painted. Older people, without teeth, dressed in colourful, but sensible clothes sat under stone archways, working their way through their prayer beads, watching children with wild black hair play in the dirt. It was so authentic. Everyone smiled and waved. The kids shouted their greetings until we were out of sight. At one point, in front of a particularily peel-y, atmospheric white building with colourful Tibetan curtains about twenty older people sat together, watching the world pass them by on the street, all smiling toothlessly, chanting and swinging their prayer wheels. Wow. I don't even know how many times I pretended my eyelids were the camera shutter, and squeezed them shut trying to etch the images into my brain. It really was just fantastic.

Just outside town is a cluster of Tibetan houses that have hot springs. The water comes from underground, so its maybe not that naturally aesthetically pleasing, but the water is warm, and its relaxing. The people have built huts with cement baths that you fill with the steamy water by unplugging the tap yourself, before hopping in. We went with a great Czech couple, Petra and Uricra to the hot spring of the friend of our hostel host. After we had soaked for a significant amount of time, listening to the wind howl outside the door we figured it was time to move on. It was an hour and a half walk back to town and we wanted to get there before dark. As Murphy's law would dictate, it started to rain literally the second we started to head back. Apparently the rain also made the already aggressive stray dogs even hungrier for blood. They chased us back to the house by the hot spring. The young Tibetan girl smiled and led us inside to the wood stove where who appeared to be her mother and grandmother sat on cushions, sipping Tibetan butter tea. I could pick out that smell anywhere. haha The older woman had an especially warm, weathered face and thick soft hands, which she reached out to grab mine in, and hold until our nice host came to rescue us.

Sure, the kids play with live wires and the pack of stray dogs are eyeing your calves like a tastey snack- but massive hairy yaks families wander down the middle of the street without a care and the tiniest piglets scamper about oinking and wagging their tales. If we don't actually get the opportunity to visit Tibet proper (and the increasingly high Chinese hoops are doing a job of insuring that) we will feel just as privileged to have had this opportunity to experience this slice of real Tibetan life.

PS. There are more photos in our photostream
P.P.S: Happy Birthday Daddy-o, Mom Mooney & Bryan!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Gone Fishin'

It is said that the Chinese people will eat anything with four legs, besides the table. Although we (hope) this isn't entirely truthful, what we do know, first hand, that our first trip to the Chinese supermarket was quite the eye-opening experience. For example, I thought it odd, at first, that the supermarket had a pet section. There were massive turtles, frogs, multiple tanks with a variety of colourful fish... what a selection. Of course, when the older man sporting a fisherman's hat grabbed a net from beside the tank and proceeded to scoop out a thrashing, fighting fish - with no small amount of splashed water- from the tank, and then continue to stuff the live fish into a plastic bag, without water, tie the bag tight and throw it into his shopping cart- I thought maybe this poor flopping fellow was not meant to be his new lifelong fishy friend. I'm not going to lie and say I wasn't completely traumatized as I watched the old man and his wife wheel the cart away, chatting mindlessly, while the fish flopped violently in the plastic bag. Wow. Life and Death. Right in aisle 9 of the supermarket. It was about time to head to the bakery, I thought, picking my jaw off the ground. The only thing that could possibly be alive there was the yeast, I prayed.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

China: The Ying Versus the Yang

The ying yang, one of China's most famous graphics, symbolizes that in all good there is a little bit of bad and in all bad there is a little bit of good. The good and the bad are inseparable- intrinsically linked to each other. The good doesn't exist without the bad and visa versa and together, they make a whole. This has been China for us thus far.

It all began on a surprisingly high note. We exited through the fickle Vietnamese Officials and walked across the bridge to China. It was much like a stroll across Rainbow Bridge, as it spanned a mighty river and some decent scenery- only the vehicles were replaced by pedestrians. Pedestrians wheeling massive carts of hay, massive carts of goods dragging pedestrians, elderly people hobbling on canes, donkeys, rusty bicycles and body bag sized backpacks. We were greeted at the Chinese side of the bridge by a couple stern looking officials. In Vietnam, they use the Latin alphabet- so at least words are recognizable in that sense to us. Now that we were in China- it was all characters. Everywhere. It was very overwhelming. Anything could mean anything, for all we knew. We stood there, flabbergasted for a moment. 'We're in China!!' We headed in the direction of a building that the official had waved us towards. This particular border had been singled out in our guide book as being particularly frustrating, slow and bureaucratic. There were even several noted incidents of officials confiscating Lonely Planet China guidebooks, as their map indicates in colours that Taiwan is an independent country - where as China still believes that Taiwan belongs to them. Needless to say, we were nervous about how the day would play out. We walked into the first entrance and we were stumped again. There didn't appear to be anywhere to go. Of course, this is because we had entered the exit. On the other side of the glass wall we spied a more entrance looking entrance and two surprisingly smiley young officials laughing and calling us over. Once we had successfully made it to the front door, it all became super easy. 'Welcome to China!' they said to us. Wow. ok. We got a helpful, private official each who scanned our passports in a machine that looked like the ones you use at the airport to print your boarding cards. These printed our entrance and exit cards for China, which they then helped us fill out. Jonathan was finished first, so he got in line to talk to an officer at the counter. My passport wasn't co-operating with the machine, so it took me considerably longer before I was ready to get into the line. By that time the line (the one and only successful line-forming we have seen in China to date) was long and with Jonathan now standing in front of the official- it was at a stand-still. The officer helping me at the machine led me away from the line to a different counter. I was sure that he thought my passport was fake because it hadn't worked in the machine, or that he was going to yank every single last item out of my bag and discover our stealth guidebook, which I had cleverly made a book cover for out of a large map of Hanoi, take it away and really leave us stranded with no information. Terrible scenarios started running through my head. What if....Ahhhhh! Turns out there was no need to panic, however. My nice little official was just opening another processing line, and bringing me to the front of it!


Soon our bags were wheeling through an x-ray machine that no one was looking at, and we were out the door, into the sunshine and officially, in China!

It took about 60 seconds for the initial excitement to wear off before we realized, in a more practical sense that-we were in China. We couldn't communicate with anyone, we didn't know where anything (namely the bus station) was, and we had no Chinese money. Dumb luck found us stumbling in the right direction. A man behind a counter in a shop that said 'toursitcal world' used Google Translate to tell us where the international ATM and bus station were. If you have never used Google Translate- check it out. You just type what you want to say into one box and your message comes up instantly in the adjacent box! It will even read it out loud for you, if you ask nicely. Google translate can even translate full websites with the click of a button!

We finally got to the bus station, money in hand, ready to go, only to find out that we had missed the bus by half an hour. There was one English speaking guy at the whole station though, and he was nice enough to tell us that we could take the bus a couple hours to the big city north of Hekou (where we were) and from there we could catch a connecting bus to Xinjie in the Yuanyang Rice Terraces. It sounded relatively easy, only one connection, and our guidebook had the Chinese characters written beside the names of the cities so we could just show the characters to the ticket lady- and voila- we would be in Xinjie, enjoying the view for dinner. These Yuanyang Rice Terraces were pretty famous, so, really, how hard could it be? What could go wrong?

Lesson #1- There is more than one town in the one hundred kilometer radius called 'Xinjie.'

So, we get on the bus, with our expensive ticket, all proud that we have managed to get this far avoiding disaster. The highway is smooth and an amazing engineering feat, passing through tunnels that burrow kilometres though mountains, along cliffs and over towering bridges. Along the way we see an exit sign for 'Xinjie.' We pass it. We figure that Xinjie, being way up in the rice terraces, must be in that direction, but this bus is an express bus to the major city and we have to catch a smaller bus from there. Makes sense. The city were we were to change buses was 80km past this 'Xinjie' exit. Oh well, as long as we got there. There was even a nice young boy on the bus that said 'Welcome to China!' It was going well. When we get off the bus, a mere three hours later we show the characters for 'Xinjie' to the bus driver to see if he can point us in the right direction and are met with confused looks, a growing crowd of concerned citizens and a whole lot of distressed sounding conversation. A man is trying to tell us something in Chinese. When we obviously aren't understanding he writes the characters down on his hand for us. Because maybe we don't speak Mandarin, but we can read it. Precious time is passing, so we thank them and head inside to the ticket counter. We show the lady 'Xinjie' and the Chinese characters beside the city. She prints the ticket for the next bus leaving in less than five minutes. We rush to the bathroom and hop on the bus as it is pulling out. Easy peasy. We start heading back over those eighty kilometers we had passed since the exit sign. Jonathan falls asleep. I dose off. A man at the front of the bus is yelling something. It kinda sounds like 'Xinjie' but I'm not really paying attention because he's yelling in Mandarin. And, I don't speak Mandarin. Even if he is saying 'Xinjie' I'm sure the bus will stop there anyways, so I don't think I really need to respond. Jonathan is snoring. We pass the sign for Xinjie. I start to panic. I show my ticket to the lady beside me. She points to the passing sign. Why aren't we stopping? Nope, we definitely aren't stopping. I run to the front of the bus and show my ticket to the driver as the exit gets smaller and smaller behind us. He starts yelling at me in Chinese. I don't know what he's saying exactly, but I get the distinct feeling that we won't be making it to xinjie today. It didn't even really make sense though. How could Xinjie be just a stop off on the way between these two cities? From what I understood, it was up in the mountainous rice terraces- far, far from the city.

Where do we end up? Back in Hekou. We have done a loop. We are now out about $30, we have spent almost six hours on the bus and we have gotten absolutely no where. We are super annoyed, frusterated and exhausted. 'We missed our stop,' I tell the English speaker back at the bus station. He looks at our tickets. 'Wrong Xinjie' he says. What?! We had a ticket to the wrong friggin Xinjie? Yup. And now the bus driver wants us to pay more money because he brought us all the way back to Hekou and didn't drop us at the wrong Xinjie. Er. Not a chance.
Its now evening, so we find a guesthouse for the night and vow to make it to those darn rice terraces on the 'direct' bus the next morning.

Now we just need some food. Easier said than done. First, we try using our Mandarin language book to ask at a few restaurants if they serve vegetarian food. This, apparently, was not the way to go. The very idea that someone would eat a meal without meat seemed to be offensive. We were waved away, shooed, ignored, and if we were lucky enough for someone to actually look at us, it was a glare. No one had a menu at all, let alone one in English. None of the dishes listed on their walls were in our food dictionary. Finally we decided just to pick a place and see what happened. We went to an open air 'restaurant', really a stall surrounded by short tables and stubby stools. 'Menu?' we asked. We were shown to a large fridge with a glass door and a long table covered in numerous bowls of raw meat. This was the menu. You pointed to what you wanted. In the corner was a tiny bowl of tofu. Really, we just wanted some veggies, but the only green on the table were herbs. We pointed at the tofu. But, I didn't just want tofu on a plate. That would be gross. I looked around to the diners tables to scope out what other people were chowing down on. There was a tasty looking dish with onions and chillis and pork. 'That,' I said, pointing to the dish, with 'that' I continued, pointing to the tofu. It seemed perfectly obvious to me. The dish with the smattering of veggies, made with tofu. Easy. I was starving. We hadn't eaten since breakfast. Jonathan, irritatingly, wasn't hungry at all.

First we were each brought a package with a tiny plate, bowl, cup and chopsticks all plastic wrapped together, and sealed- for the environment's sake. I wasted no time ripping mine open- it was a novel idea. A personal set of dishes all wrapped up just for me. Well, it was novel until we got the bill and realized that we were charged for using the dishes! What kind of restaurant is this, where you don't even get to use the dishes for free! How ridiculous! Anyways, next came a bowl of rice. Good. Then, finally, the main course, the exact dish I pointed to, the one heaping with pork was delivered. Sigh. It took about 10 minutes further to get anyone's attention. When the young man who had taken our order finally strolled over we tried to explain to him, in Mandarin, again, that we were vegetarian and submitted to the idea of settling on a plate of tofu. 'Tofu, tofu.' It was agreed on. He was annoyed. Our order was followed by a long interlude of mocking where by the server loudly and obviously complained to the entire restaurant about us. I was so hungry and frustrated that at that point I really didn't care what I ate. If I had been thinking clearly, and not so overwhelmed, I would have just ate the rice and called it a night. The 'tofu' dish came. It was a plate of bacon. Literally. Just bacon. In an inch of oil. I was so, so, so frustrated. I couldn't help it. Tears started to sting the corner of my eyes. We were surrounded by food and couldn't find anything to eat. We couldn't communicate even the simplest thoughts. We couldn't even buy a bus ticket. And it was day one. How were we going to survive the week, let a lone the month, let alone three in this meat-obsessed country!

We paid for our untouched food and left. Across the street was a fast food joint that had big, glossy pictures of the fried dishes it offered. Burgers and fries type food. There was a picture of a rather tasty looking pizza. And a cob of corn. They love their corn. I wasn't picturing my first meal in China to be pizza from a fast food place, but times were desperate. We were pretty sure the pizza was pork free. I ordered it. It took exactly three minutes to cook. I know this because I could see the timer on the microwave they cooked it in. It was soggy and gross. I wasn't hungry anymore anyways. We went back to the guesthouse and fell asleep vowing to give China a fresh shot in the morning.

Everything seemed better in the fresh light of the fresh following day. We bought a pineapple and mango from a stand and they cut them up for us to eat for breakfast. We got on the correct bus to the correct Xinjie and it left right on time. Despite our rocky start we were determined to keep our hopes high for China. Since that first day, we really haven't been disappointed. Sure, the tourist structure for non-Chinese tourists is almost completely lacking, but generally people have been very friendly and helpful- even though communication is a huge barrier. We were originally thinking that Yunnan would be reminiscent of South East Asia. We were 100% completely wrong. China is unique in almost every aspect.

Our nine hour bus ride up to the Xinjie was long. Very long. The scenery was superb, however, and it was a real 'slice of life' type of experience. The bus stopped along the way, loaded up on boxes of mangoes and bananas which were deposited at various stalls along the way, the ticket man/conductor/boss (there is always a driver and a conducter on the bus) kept everyone laughing the whole time. We picked up sassy Chinese women, decked out in heels and silk scarves, despite being 'exactly in the middle of no where,' who teased the men and spent long periods watching themselves in their handy compact mirrors. We stopped to wash the bus no less than three times. We stopped for gas. We stopped at numerous police check points. It was not the express, smooth highway we had been on the day before. It was more of the back, dusty, bumpy, cracked, crumbly variety. We took that as a sign that maybe we were going to end up in the right place this time.

We arrived in 'Xinjie' -the wrong one first, and shook our heads. It was less than a one yak town. It was probably a good thing that we hadn't ended up here for the night anyhow. Speaking of 'Xinjie-the wrong one,' it turns out that we aren't the only travellers who have been led astray by this naming conundrum. We heard from our friends Joel and Sonia that they had paid a significant sum for a taxi to bring them to 'Xinjie- the right one,' but instead had been delivered to 'Xinjie- the wrong one.' Unfortunately for them, being such a confusing ordeal, they realized minutes too late that there weren't in fact in 'Xinjie- the right one,' and the taxi driver made out like a bandit. Makes you wonder if they co-named 'Xinjie' for such purposes.

In wrong Xinjie, there was a police check point. A police checkpoint is most often a little shack on the side of the road manned by incredibly young looking police officers who sit behind a little wooden desk intently writing in a big, thick notebook. A police officer boards the bus and quickly glances at ID cards of the passengers. Foreigners hand over their passports which are taken off the bus and over to the policeman behind the desk who dutifully copies what must be the entire passport worth of information, considering how long the process takes.

In Xinjie an adorably cute young officer with a wide smile and shiny eyes boarded our bus. 'Welcome to China!' he said to us. It was the third time we had been 'welcomed' in 24 hours and the thought didn't go un-appreciated. He took our passports for the regular check. When he brought them back, he was smiling again, and seemed genuinely happy that we were there. 'Have a good China,' he declared proudly. I gazed back at him, batting my eyelashes and smiling dreamily. He was just so cute. Beside me Jonathan sighed loudly and rolled his eyes in my direction as he reached past me to retrieve the passports that Officer Adorable was holding out patiently, waiting for me to claim. 'Don't mind her,' my husband quipped.

As he disembarked the bus my officer's brilliant smile fell from his face. Himself along with two fellow stone faced comrades squared their shoulders and stood perfectly still and straight, saluting our bus. I took advantage of the fact that our ancient bus took a good sixty seconds to gurgle, spurt and lurch back to life. I spent the first thirty seconds smiling widely at them. Then, when that got me no where, I resorted to making funny faces, trying my darnedest to make any one of them crack a smile. Like the guards at Buckingham Palace, their faces remained straight as an arrow. Just as we were pulling away I noticed the smallest twitch in the corner of Officer Adorable's mouth. I considered it a grand success. How utterly charming... uh...I mean serious, professional and authoritative...

We arrived in Xinjie proper, extremely happy with ourselves for finally making it. We were even overjoyed that and over zealous hotel tout was waiting for us upon arrival to whisk us away to her guesthouse in a minivan. It didn't even (really) bother us that she didn't even wait until we had gotten off the bus to 'wow' us with her business card. 'Belinda' cut to the chase and jumped on the bus and ran down the aisle to get to us. All the better. At least we wouldn't get lost. Things were looking up. China was going to be great.

Chinglish Lesson #1-
A sign posted at the base of an escalator in a department store:
'Guardians MUST accompany oldies and children on the lift.'

On our menu this week:
'Fried breast milk'
'Fried Friends'