Saturday, July 30, 2011


Just a quick note to tell you about Shenaini. Paul and Dorothy, our friends from Fenghuang, took us on a personal tour of their home-factory. From here the products are designed, sewn, stocked and shipped. Also it is in this home-factory where the colours for the embroidery are experimented with and finally chosen. The choosing of the colours was a particularly interesting process. Once the designs for any particular product are finalized, the local embroidery experts, the Miao madams, dexterously set to work bringing forth examples of how each combination of coloured threads work together in the given embroidered templates. With the experimental palette of embroideries complete, the question What colours do you like the best? is floated around Shenaini: Paul and Dorothy, Sharon (the smiley lead hand in the factory), all the workers, the Miao women who actually did the embroidery and, while we were visiting, us! Yes, Paul and Dorothy even asked us which colours we preferred for a large order they were organizing for a company in the the USA! The Shenaini company culture is one that struck us as a very family-oriented one. For the short time we were there, we were made to feel like part of the Shenaini family, with pancakes and all!

One of the things that we were hoping to do by blogging for this trip was to highlight good things that were happening in the communities that we wandered into. Despite our best efforts to learn some local language along the way (mostly to help us find food and accommodation), short of finding folks like Paul and Dorothy, David and Sophie and a few others along the way, we can't find out about these local initiatives very easily. We haven't done a very good job with this part of our blogging. But when we do find folks like Paul and Dorothy who really care about building relationships with and in their community by engaging with the local people and their culture with respect, fairness and a real interest in making a positive contribution we get excited.

We could go on more about Shenaini, but maybe you should just check the website out yourself: Shenaini Website (the link will open in a new window).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

And then We Ate Pancakes...

If Fenghuang had ended after a few dragon boat races, strolls along the river, delicious food and hanging out with our new Chinese friends, David and Sophie, we would have considered the stop a great success. Somehow it got even better, though. We were wandering through the supermarket, as we like to do in China, marveling at the endless aisles of undecipherable packaged goods and the number of items they successfully dry and vacuum pack. We had settled, as we usually do, on a bar of Dove chocolate (me) and some wafer cookies (Jonathan) and were just about to check out.

Just then two other foreigners came into the store. We noticed them straight off, which was pretty easy, seeing as we were the only four non Chinese people in the store, maybe even the city. Paul and Dorothy, it turns out, are a super friendly American couple doing some wonderful things in China with the small factory they run out of their home. Thankfully for us, Paul and Dorothy are incredibly generous and we were lucky enough to be invited over for dinner the following evening. We had a dinner date! We were super excited. What were we going to wear? haha

Before heading over to their house we stopped back in at the supermarket to pick up something to bring with us, to contribute to what would, no doubt, be a fantastic meal. We found ourselves in the cookie aisle, debating the pros and cons of Chips Ahoy versus Oreos. If we had been at home I would have been elated over the excuse to bake cookies or cupcakes, or something equally full of delicious, albeit empty calories. (What better kind of calories are there? Ohhhh, how I miss baking!) But, no, in China here we were in the cookie aisle trying to figure out which seventy-five cent package of cookies would be the least weird to be standing at Paul and Dorothy's door with. We almost wished the cookies were more expensive so we wouldn't feel so cheap showing up with less than a dollar of dessert. It was funny picturing being at home and showing up at someone's house for dinner with a package of store bought cookies as an offering. 'Hey, thanks for inviting us! I brought you some... umm Peak Freans.' Eventually I decided that we should at least try get something that someone else baked outside a factory and settled on a small roll cake from the bakery section. Success.

We were greeted warmly by Paul, Dorothy and their adorable dog, Mimi. Dorothy had made: deep breath (I'm drooling, remembering it) - a vegetarian quiche with HOMEMADE flaky crust with REAL butter and CHEESE, FRESH BREAD and a salad- with vegetables. Now, this may sound like a normal dinner that you, yourself had just the other night-but for us, it was absolutely the biggest treat we could imagine. Cheese. Butter. Homemade jam. All the staples that we totally take for granted at home, but are unavailable in Asia. We ate so slowly, savoring every bite and licking up every crumb.

Just as fabulous as the food, was spending time with Paul and Dorothy. They have been living in beautiful Fenghuang for five years now. Their company Shenanini produces a beautiful collection of embroidered fair-trade purses, wallets and bags. I think that was actually how they were transformed from strangers into friends: in the supermarket Paul showed Jonathan his wallet that had the three embroidered Chinese characters for Faith, Hope and Love. When Jonathan saw this he smiled and responded, "Oh, you're Christians. Us too." Anyway, Paul and Dorothy have a small, very talented permanent staff who do much of the sewing and pattern screening. But they also contract out the hand embroidery to the local minority Miao women to do on their own time, whenever they are free. This enables the women to make money while still being able to take care of their kids and carry on with whatever else they have going on in their lives at the time. More on their company in the next post, though.

Our time with Paul and Dorothy flew by. We could have talked for hours. They are so interesting, motivated, intelligent, and really funny. We can't describe how refreshing it is to meet people who understand what it is like to be in a completely foreign culture for so long, and to be able to express themselves so well. Mostly its good to know that we aren't crazy. That other people have similar experiences, apprehensions and questions as we do. We loved hearing their stories, sharing ours and learning about life in China. We loved being with a couple who were so positive, so real, so involved in their community and so in love with each other.

We went home that night feeling so lucky to have met Paul and Dorothy. China travel is hard. It's exhausting, frustrating and exhilarating. Some days it takes more from you than it gives. You really have no idea what the next day will bring, no matter how well you've planned the hours. And believe me, I try to plan them. Its amazing how things work out. On the edge of what could have become an exhausting breakdown (one of a few on this trip, I'm not going to lie) we really, REALLY just needed some normalcy from China. And then there were Paul and Dorothy, answered prayers in a way we couldn't have imagined up in our most creative moments. Really, a couple of Americans in the check out aisle of a Chinese supermarket- that's creative. I mean, we would have been more than happy with hostel staff that could manage a few English sentences, and instead we get a weekend of encouraging company and comfort food!

And I haven't mentioned the PANCAKES and MAPLE SYRUP that we shared for lunch the next day! Every morning, Jonathan and I wake up and there's a routine. 'What do you want for breakfast?' Jonathan asks me, even though, really our only choice is rice noodle soup, or, if we can manage to communicate it, rice noodles fried. I know this, of course, but it doesn't stop me from answering, 'pancakes with fruit and maple syrup!' (As my belly rumbles, I drool a little and render any other breakfast unsatisfactory- not helpful, by the way.) So, you can imagine our excitement when we stopped by Paul and Dorothy's the next day to chat a little more and pick out a perfect change purse from their collection to replace my ailing one, and Paul randomly asks if we wanted pancakes for lunch! Did we want pancakes for lunch?! Do the Chinese like to chew on chicken feet? We hadn't expected to be fed again, of course, we are just having really, REALLY lucky timing. Of course we wanted pancakes and Paul's homemade Maple syrup for lunch! Total jackpot! I think I may have actually danced to the kitchen, equally as excited to stir up the batter as I was to chow down on some PANCAKES!

Anyways, Paul, Dorothy and Mimi were super understanding of our ecstatics over their food. Or, if they weren't they did a wonderful job of being the perfect hosts hiding it. haha

Thank you again so much to Paul and Dorothy for being so welcoming and wonderful. We feel so blessed to have met you and Fenghuang wouldn't have been the same without you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Couples Who Wear Matching Outfits

We arrived in Fenghuang jonesin' for some English. We had been in gorgeous, but relatively remote, or at least un-foreign tourist-ed spots for the previous couple weeks and were hoping that Fenghuang, a bigger, more touristy old city, would have at least a single hostel employee that could answer some of our questions. It became rather quickly apparent that this wasn't going to be the case. It was touristy, alright- it seemed like all of the 1.3 billion Chinese people had chosen this week to come to Fenghuang as well. We sat down on a stone wall by the picturesque river, trying to figure out where, exactly, on the useless Lonely Planet map we were and where we could sleep.

As has been the case in the majority of our China travels- people were staring and taking photos of us. Being hot, lost and frustrated, the unwanted attention didn't help. I'm pretty sure I shot more than a few daggers at the passing photographers. Then, a Chinese couple, maybe a little younger than us, the man wearing a red and white striped shirt, and the woman in the matching dress version stopped and stood over us. They stared and bent over us like they were trying to read the Lonely Planet over our shoulders. I thought it was quite annoying, but this is what many Chinese do. I was just about to ask them why they just had to stand there and stare at us when the man piped up. 'Where are you from?' He asked. I wasn't in the mood for small talk. Thankfully, Jonathan is endlessly patient. 'Canada,' he answered, smiling, before turning back to the map. Were we holding it upside down? What side of the river are we even on? Man, this map sucks (as usual). 'What can I do for you?' asked the Chinese man. I sighed and rolled my eyes. What is it with Chinese couples dressing the same, anyways? Did the matching outfits come in a package? At a discount? 'Well... I could use a foot massage, but really, we're fine, thanks, just looking for a place to sleep,' Jonathan responded.

The couple continued to stand there, hunched over our guidebook like maybe if we all stared long enough a hotel would magically hop off the page like a pop-up tent right in front of our eyes and, heck, we could just sleep there. I don't know why I need to get so annoyed almost immediately, I know that often, the Chinese are really just trying to help and they mean no offense by constantly and obviously staring and taking our photo. China just has a way of getting under your skin. For me, and my long-suffering husband, its almost every day we move to another destination. It was my choice to create our Chinese itinerary out of a whole bunch of out-of-the-way, backwater, remote, destinations. Of course travel was going to be harder than your typical Bejing-Xi'an-Chengdu trip. But as soon as I thinking about how complicated it is, and how we can't communicate with anyone- I get annoyed. I love it and hate it with equal passion, every day. Its exhausting.

'You can come to our hotel,' suggested the man, whose English name turned out to be David. I shrugged and sent Jonathan along to check it out while I babysat the bags. 'Are you ok?' I was asked for the second time that hour by a European sounding man about my age. I was defensive. I was just sitting here. Why did everyone think I had some sort of problem. 'Yes, why?' I asked, a little snarkily, I admit. This was the first foreigner I had spoken to in about a week- what was my problem? Why was I being rude? I guess I did have one after all. 'Oh, they said you needed help,' the European responded. 'Who's they?' I asked, looking around, immediately annoyed again. 'Oh, the Chinese people. They say you don't speak Chinese and you need help,' he answered matter-of-factly, motioning behind him. Mostly, I was annoyed because it was true. And apparently obvious to everyone around. Hmmmmm. Despite my unfriendliness he continued to tell me where he was staying, how much it cost and that there was a room left, if I so required. I thanked him and he walked away, vowing never to be helpful again, no doubt.

Jonathan returned, with his new best friend, David, in tow. It turns out that David and his girlfriend Wan Kai, or Sophie as I later named her (How fun is that? I named someone!) just graduated from a four year University English program. They really wanted to talk to/help us, but they were shy, hence the staring. Yup, its official- I'm a jerk. They studied English for four years and so very rarely got to actually practice speaking, that they were very nervous to do so, especially with us foreigners, even though their English really was quite good. We carried our bags back to the perfect hotel with the perfect panoramic balcony as a team. They acted as our official translators with the hotel owner and directed him to set us up with a fan, toilet paper, towels and even pre-set the TV to the one and only English channel, so all we had to do was press power and-voila- good old consistently depressing world 'news'- in English! The lap of luxury, really. They told us their room number and that we could come get them if we needed anything else. So nice. I felt especially bad for originally being so annoyed. As is almost always the case.

A couple days later, David knocked on our door. 'Hello!' I greeted him cheerfully. He smiled, but looked confused. 'Is Jon here?' he asked, like a kid asking their parent if their child could come out and play. Jonathan came to the door. Turns out David can't really understand me. Jonathan speaks much MUCH slower, deliberately and with perfect pronunciation. Those who know me know- I don't. At all. Sometimes Jonathan has to translate my English into his English for other people. Anyways, David and Sophie wanted to hang out, 'taste the local dishes,' and 'take many beautiful photos' with us down by the river as, 'meeting us has been a very special memory that they will always remember.' Cute, right?

David was very concerned as to how we ever get any food to eat, being that all of the menus are only in Chinese, and of course, the vegetarian complication. Really though, its quite easy. We point. We confidently walk into the kitchen (which is often just right there in the same room, making it easy) and point to eggplant, potatoes, spinach, lotus root, noodles, or whatever suits our fancy. We point to garlic and chillis so is clear that we like it spicy. What was so frustrating at the beginning of our Chinese adventure, is now the easiest part of our day. Rice is unlimited for a mere 30cents each- and yum- for under $4, we have a full, filling meal for two. Two can dine for $3.99! ('Are you outta your mind?!') How will we go back to a fork and knife?

David and Sophie wanted to take some photos down by the river, show us the local spicy pulled ginger sugar candy, go on a boat cruise to taste some local wine, take us for dinner and finish off the night with drinks at a small, hidden riverside cafe that they had discovered. Turns out Chinese white wine is whisky, though- for all those who are interested. Its quite shocking when you are expecting wine, as we think of it. And funny.

Splashing water at friends and strangers is a favourite pass time on the boat cruise- turns out. We were on a small wooden boat similar to a gondola, being punted down the river. Being foreigners, we were prime target to the surrounding splashes. Splashing water spreads 'good luck.' The Chinese take luck very seriously. David and Sophie did their very best, in their defense, to convince everyone that we were quite lucky enough without their splashing- but of course, it was to little avail. Jonathan started a small war with one hand swipe into the river. We were soaked. Who are we to turn down luck?

It was a fantastic experience, and our first, to really be able to talk to Chinese people, in China about their opinions and experiences. It was the first time that they had shared a meal with foreigners- and our first time to share a meal with locals. How exciting! In China dishes are not ordered individually. Instead, a series of dishes are ordered and placed in the middle of the table along with a massive bowl of white, steamed rice. I think it pained David a little bit to have to order all vegetarian food when there are so many meat dishes that Fenghuang is 'famous' for, that he wanted us to try. He took it all in stride though, and ordered us a fantastic spread. Everyone at the table has a small bowl. Smaller than a typical cereal bowl. Half the size, maybe. Rice is piled into your small bowl with a spoon from the communal bowl. Then, using chopsticks, you pick your choice morsels out of the oily dishes (not as bad as it sounds, but yes, oily), and put them into your bowl a little at a time, as not much can fit with all that rice. Everyone shares the dishes, using the same chopsticks to serve as to eat. With a growing concern of disease or sickness, some restaurants provide serving spoons for the dishes, but between friends and family, most just stick to the chopstick method. Chinese people eat very fast. Often two or three parties will eat and leave before we are done savoring our meal. Its unabashedly loud, slurpy and messy. Many people hold their bowl up close their mouths use the chopsticks shovel style. Any bones or unwanted chunks are scattered across the table and floor. Not only do they clean the table between restaurant customers- they change the entire table cloth! The craziest part about it all. This is becoming completely normal to us. Really, whats so bad about slurping in surround sound anyways?

We are so happy to have had the opportunity to meet and spend time with David and Sophie. China is full of fantastic, interesting people, and we are so glad to be able to have had an insightful chat with a couple of them.

ps. Yes, that sure is a flattened pig face!

pps. Today is 285 days of travel for us! Can you believe it?

ppps. We are flying to Kathmandu, Nepal in one week, just so you know.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The Second Happiest Day of the Year

'The Happiest Day of the Year' in the circles we run, is actually my good friend Sarah's Birthday. September 16th is officially, the 'happiest day of the year' (so mark it on your calendars) as this is the fateful day that my Sarah was born. No argument. No question. That's the day. But I'm just going to borrow her idea, just this once. She won't mind. She's nice like that. Soooo, the history now explained, today is the Second Happiest Day of the Year: My Birthday! It is July 13th and we are in Tongren, China. If you are now scanning the map of China that you, no doubt, keep taped to the front of your computer desk so you can easily follow our every move through this massive country, Tongren might be hard to spot.

We are north of Tibet, and south of the city of Xining, in the northern province of Qinghai (pronounced Ching-hai). We feel as though we are on the edge of civilization, the brink of China. We are very west. Any more west and we feel as though we might tumble into Tibet or Russia. That was until I took a look at a map and realized that really, we are actually just about smack in the middle of China's landmass. Its like we call Parry Sound 'Northern Ontario' even though, on the map there is actually a whole lot more Ontario north of us. As far as China's population goes, anyways, we are on the western brink. We are out somewhere on the Tibetan plateau and are loving it. I think it just might be my first birthday ever that I am wearing a fleece and scarf in the middle of July, but why not change it up a bit? We have had summer pretty much non-stop for the last 10 months, why not have winter in July. The chilly air is welcome by us.

So, who wants a play by play of the Second Happiest Day of the Year? Everyone, right? As my family knows, I'm a little crazy about my birthday. (Evidence - this year they had a celebration, complete with brownies on my birthday at the cottage, even though I was thousands of kms away- Aren't they wonderful!) Really, all I want is non-stop fun and birthday cake for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert...oh, and for everyone to do anything I say all day long.. is that too much to ask? haha I know they have maybe been a bit worried about 'the' day this year (because obviously everyone's July thoughts are always on my birthday) and, we have had a bit of a rough week and a crappy birthday may just lead to a bit of a breakdown. But, worry not, dear family and friends, its been a great day!

We woke up in a bed that was comprised of more than just a moldy plank of wood. There was foam on that plank of wood. Bonus! Then there was actual hot water in the shower! It was going to be a good day, I could tell.

We scooted through the rain to a restaurant next to our luxurious hotel. We pointed to a picture on the wall of hand-pulled rice noodles (that look like spaghetti, but taste better) topped with shredded, sauteed potato (like home fries). Because the only other vegetarian option was egg and tomato on rice noodles, and sometimes (often) Chinese eggs are fertilized, and eating baby chicken abortions weren't an acceptable Birthday breakfast. Rice and potatoes it was. A nice, light way to start the day! haha But it was hot, delicious, and the portions massive enough to feed us, and the Tibetan children staring at us, bewildered, from the next table.

We were so full we didn't even have to walk down the hill to the bus stop- we rolled. Convenient! We caught a minibus to a Tibetan monastery outside of town that is famous for it's 'Thangka Paintings.' So famous, in fact, that an entire style of thangka painting is named after this town. I just love Tibetan monasteries. The stupas are stark white, but everything else, from the buildings to the prayer wheels and flags are bursting with colour. The monks are always so friendly and smiley, and it is so so photogenic..if only they allowed photos inside..

What we noticed right off that this monastery were the adorable child monks in their tiny, flowing little maroon robes. The stuff national geographic is made of. They were slurping away at treats from the monk tuk shop, of course, as opposed to sitting silently striving to achieve enlightenment- but they were pretty great, either way. Right away an adult friendly monk waved us to him and brought us up to a second floor of a unique golden stupa to show off the view. Then he showed us into one of the private homes of one of the thangka painters, who was putting the finishing details on an amazing piece of art. Thangka paintings are usually (from what we can tell) focused on one or another mythical being, in the middle, but have a plethora of other things going on around the painting as well. The colours are spectacular and the detail is incredible. Many of the paintings from this monastery are commissioned all the way from Lhasa. A poster size painting sells for several hundred dollars, and even a postcard size one is $50. Its not surprising, considering even the smallest ones take about a month to paint. Its hard to express just how detailed this art is. The monk brought us into a show room where several more works hung on scrolls, the gold detail paint glimmering in the low light. Wow. And we hadn't even entered the monastery yet.

Once inside, our personal monk tour guide, a huge ring of keys clinking at his side, showed us into some of the locked chapels. They were just amazing. Usually we don't go into monasteries, mosques, temples, synagogues or churches that have entrance fees, but seeing as it was such an important day- we splurged, and are so happy we did. I think we appreciated it even more because we have been so selective about our sightseeing. Each chapel was different, but equally adorned with a gob-smacking amount of detail. Each chapel was dedicated to a different Buddha. In the first chapel, Buddha had a 'thousand eyes and arms' literally, I think. The statue was as tall as the three story ceiling, painted and adorned with rich, draping cloth. Clear boxes containing miniature Buddha statues covered the walls like wall paper. Other chapels, all with floor to ceiling statues, had walls adorned with huge thangkas, wall paintings or human-size statues. Our guide had actually painted one of the life-size thangkas on one of the walls of a chapel. We took the painting in for nearly ten minutes and still probably didn't appreciate all the detail.

The absolute highlight though was being led into a large-ish, window-less dining hall that was lit almost entirely by candlelight. Deeply coloured tapestries hung from the high ceilings. The atmosphere was like nothing we have experienced (although it did give us thoughts of Taize). Warm, cozy, rich and steeped in tradition. There were three long, low tables set up down the middle of the room. Crimson clad monks sat, cross-legged on matching maroon pillows on the floor, chanting before their meal. Baskets of crusty bread sat at the end of each table. The youngest monks eyed the bread hungrily, laughed and smiled at us, while the older monks chanted away, focused and dedicated. The whole thing was enchanting. Magical, even. Sometimes it takes just moments for your whole day to jump from good to great.

We hiked back to town amidst endless fields of yellow flowers which provided a colourful foreground for the distant red cliffs topped with soft looking green peaks. It even stopped raining. We stopped at a bakery and picked out a small, two person birthday cake, and two mini cupcakes as backup. The cake looked fantastic, but I didnt have high hopes. Most things in Asian bakeries look delicious but very few live up to their looks. It has taken many a disappointing bakery trips to finally accept this truth. We found a cozy tea house with big, light windows and hunkered down with our cake, cupcakes and a pot of tea. The tea house owner even somehow managed to conjure up with a couple of forks for us (which is much more impressive than it sounds). Jonathan sang 'Happy Birthday,' like the good husband that he is and we skeptically dug into the cake (J: actually only one of us 'dug' into the cake and I would hardly describe the digging as skeptical). Again, we were pleasantly surprised! It was actually really good. Probably because it was birthday cake and birthday cake is always good!

Its now night time here in China, which means my birthday celebrations are drawing to a close for yet another year. Thankfully for all of you in North America, however, night time here means its the morning for you, and that means that my bday celebrations should just be kicking off! I say, start the festivities off by having a piece of birthday cake for me! (Or two).

PS. We didn't have internet on my birthday, so this is late. Thanks for the birthday wishes everyone!

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Day in the Life of a Couple Superstars

'Who are these superstars?' You are maybe asking. Well myself and Jonathan, of course. Surprised? Yeah, so were we. We didn't even know that we were famous either, until we got to China. Turns out we're big here. Jonathan even has a fan club-widespread, although not that well organized. They just seem to pop out of every where.

Its hard to tell whether we are a traveling freak show or superstars- but we choose to go with the latter, because it makes us feel better. If we started charging for photos, like they did to take a picture of nature in Tiger Leaping Gorge (still a little annoyed about it, yes) we would be able to finance our entire China trip. No exaggeration. And that would just be from the profit of people who actually have the gull to ask us if they can take our photo as opposed to all the other people who think that they are being super sneaky about it. They're not. We see them. Subtley is not a widespread talent here.

When my friend Laura came back from Africa she talked about people staring all the time. Now, I totally understand. Its not easy to understand what its like unless you've experienced it. You probably think, yeah, whatever. People look at you and take your photo a lot. But its weird and it can get really frustrating. People are ALWAYS staring at us, and that is not even the tiniest exaggeration. If I happen to glance at any random person in our vicinity, about 99% of the time I find them looking back at us. We can't even sit on a bench and people watch. Because they are all watching us. Gramma wouldn't know what to do! We draw a crowd. All the time. Like people will be walking along, laa tee daa, and we walk past and they actually STOP walking, and stand there, staring. It doesn't stop there. They have to swing their head around so their stare can follow us the entire time until we are out of view. This ordeal isn't all the time, of course, mostly with older people and kids, who get to do whatever they want in any culture. One time a kid fell down a flight of stairs because he was so busy staring at Jonathan. People walk into each other. We wonder if we've caused a car accident or two. Or maybe its just the horrific driving...

Sometimes we feel like we are like a one legged guy in a wheelchair with a mohawk or something. Small kids stop what they are doing and stare, wide eyed, sometimes pointing at us. They make some comment in Chinese that results in a smack across their head from their blushing mother as they are dragged away while being lectured. Obviously they had just said something offensive. Not that we have the slightest idea what it was. We like to adlib though. 'Mommy, have you ever tried those weird looking animals barbequed and on a skewer before?'

My reaction to the staring goes in cycles and is largely affected by my mood of the moment. Jonathan, the ever calm one, always just smiles affably, unfazed. I know that people aren't trying to be offensive when they stick their camera right in our faces or stare openly. I guess we are just like a car crash and people just can't look away! ha Sometimes I want to stick my tongue out, or scream 'BOO' and jump in the air, just to see what would happen. When we first got to China this whole staring phenomenon was interesting. Then it got annoying, then we thought it was funny and we started posing randomly, smiling and waving, then it was annoying again. Sometimes I just want to scream, 'STOP LOOKING AT ME!' Jeez. It makes you quite self conscious. Is my skirt tucked into my underware? Is there a poisonous spider on my face? Something in my teeth? Do l look fat in this? Am I really that bad with chopsticks? But no, I'm just me. Well, Jonathan does have a pretty enormous beard- even for lumberjack standards.

Then there's the pictures. Like at home, pretty much everyone in China has a camera, and I think pretty much every camera must have a picture of us, by now. Sometimes teens run up to us, all excited and enthusiastic and ask if they can have their photo taken with us. Of course, we say yes, and pose for umpteen different cameras and groups, all while sporting the essential peace sign look. Why the peace sign? I still don't understand. (J: We have discovered that this "peace sign" is actually a sign for "Victory." Still, that doesn't make any more sense then if it were the peace sign. Like many things in China, no one can explain why they do it, but it is still important to do it anyway.) We do think that these little photoshoots are fun though. And it all seems to make the teens irrationally, Hanson teeny-bopper happy extreme. Fifteen minutes later, with our photoshoot complete, I begin to wonder how I actually look in these photos that these Teens'R'Us are giggling at. I'm usually about twice the size of any given Chinese girl. Jonathan towers over everyone. Am I wearing makeup? Did I brush my hair? Did I even shower today? (J: no, no and maybe) Man, its tough being a superstar.

Although, admittedly, Jonathan is slightly more popular in the photo polls than I am. Not that I'm complaining. Monks even chased us down the street one day to have their photo taken with him. It was pretty funny. Even for the shop keepers where we were at the time of the 'attack' innocently trying to blend in and purchase some noodles. Sometimes, no, always, I wonder what people are going to do with these photos.

One night in Lijiang when we were walking home from dinner with Joel and Sonia we somehow got pulled into a foursome photoshoot. Sonia and I are both blonde, and with savvy looking Joel and werewolf Jonathan, we quickly drew a sizable crowd of photographers. What a jackpot. Now thats a photo to hang on your wall. Four people I don't know, in a dark square somewhere in China. In Chongqing Jonathan and I got separated in a crazy crowd in their 'ancient town.' As he was standing on a cobblestone curb waiting for me to complete my search and rescue mission he started his own photo shoot and counted no less than 29 people taking his photo! Crazy, right? The other day in Zhanjiajie National Forest Park I was standing there, minding my own business, trying to take a photo of the spectacular scenery when I sensed someone very close to me- this is not unusual, given that the concept of personal space is completely foreign here, in a country with 1.3 billion people. But, no, this lady just wanted her photo taken with us. When I didn't immediately drop my camera and smile happily at her friend, aiming the camera at us- she smacked me! Not hard or anything, more like a mother to her child misbehaving in public. I was a little shocked, but I let the camera fall around my neck and smiled obligingly for the photo. One photo became two, and the there was a line up- like we were signing autographs or something. Then people who didn't know us (obviously) nor the person who was posing with us started taking photos! No, really WHAT are you going to do with that photo? Oh, I know. Give it to your kids for show-and-tell. haha

Then there's the super sneakers who prefer the drive-by shooting method. They are too whimpy to just acknowledge that they want to take our photo, so they have to go into stealth mode to achieve their goal. The funny thing is that this photo-mobbing is actually a recognized issue. On one of the signs posted in Zhanjiajie National Forest Park (and translated into English for our entertainment) it reads #7. Do not take pictures of our foreign friends without their permission! It's an actual rule- written on a sign- that apparently no one reads.

Sometimes this super-sneaky method of photography means nonchalently holding their camera at their waist, pointed up at us, finger poised and ready on the shutter, so when we walk past they can get their oh-so-important shot. Good one. Then there is quick phone shot, while pretending to talk on the phone. Another super stealth move. Once a lady videotaped us eating icecream on a bench for, no joke, ten minutes. We just sat there- and ate ice cream. The other day I noticed a lady with her phone pointed at me. I wasn't sure if she was trying to videotape me being all entertaining and standing there, or if she was trying to take a photo of something behind me, so I tried to move out of the way. Her phone followed. So I started zig zagging back and forth, for fun. 'Take a step to the left, one to the riiiight, out your hands on your hips, pull your knees in tiiight...' haha It took her a good couple minutes to realize that I had actually (gasp) noticed her videotaping me. (How stupid do some people think we are? Don't answer that.) She quickly put her phone down and, get this, glared at me!!!! Like I said, being a superstar is hard.

I write this knowing that I as well, take photos of people. We have, after all, come half way across the world specifically to see foreign people and their culture. I do, however, refrain from shoving in camera in someone's face without permission. Its a novel idea. I just find it funny that we come to China to see it and the Chinese and then, more often then not, we are the ones on the other side of the lens. Don't we just look like normal tourists bumbling about? Would I chase tourists to take their photos in front of Niagara? Obviously not- I would avoid them at all costs. Its a different world over here, let me tell you.

fyi: Another helpful tidbit: When a Chinese ATM asks you if you want 'advice,' much to my dismay, it does not mean that a fortune cookie stuffed with words of wisdom is going to come popping out of the slot. Believe me, I've now been waiting over two months and still- no fortune cookie. Apparently they just want to know if you want an ATM reciept. How boring.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Shaxi- A Trip Back in Time

We decided to make a quick stop in the old town of Shaxi. Caravans heading across the Orient would stop in at this main town, back in the day, to stock up on supplies and practice a bit of their kung-fu. Only three of these caravan oasis remain, and Shaxi is the best preserved one. And the only one with a surviving market. And we love markets. We arrived via minivan to a nearly deserted town. A few people went about their daily business, chopping up pigs and repairing old leather shoes by hand, but for the most part, it was a ghost town. The side streets were narrow and made of large cobblestones. It was very atmospheric. You could almost hear the clippity clop of horse drawn wagons gone by. It would have been a very bumpy buggy ride.

We wandered down the narrow lanes, exploring the nooks and crannies. We strolled along the riverside with the stray dogs. Many pictures were taken. Where was everyone? In the early evening we found ourselves in the town square. Surrounded by multiple alleys of uneven cobblestone, the square in inaccessible by vehicle. There were a couple of chairs set out in front of a shop that looked like it might serve drinks, so we sat down with a couple teas. We had found the action. Everything that is anything takes place in the town square! By everything, we mean entertaining youngsters and their doting grandparents, energizer dogs and rambuncious puppy brawls, all five tourists, relaxed, tea-sipping shop keepers and a group of elders, so old they look like perhaps they personally witnessed the times when Shaxi was an important stop on the caravan route. It was a real 'slice of life' experience and sitting there, soaking it all in while sipping our tea is one of our fondest Chinese memories.

Friday morning we woke up to a ruckus. We went down to the street and were shocked to see it full of people, bustling about. It was like a completely different town! The main street was lined with market stalls selling everything from nails to mangoes. There were dried goodies and grossies, cookies, tools, baskets, live animals, brooms, dentures, steam buns, special local noodles, fruits, veggies and many, many things we didn't recognize. The town was alive, and it was the most fantastic, genuine energy. We spent the entire morning wandering through all the various market clusters. People were so friendly and welcoming. They waved, smiled and gave us samples. They were after my heart, clearly.

Shaxi felt real. It wasn't touristy. There was one cafe with English on the menu, and even then you still weren't 100% sure what you would be getting on your plate. As corny as it sounds, we really felt like 48-hour locals.

ps. Happy Birthday Laura!!

pps. Sooo.. China Post is refusing to mail anything to Canada because of the now resolved postal strike, or according to the lady in the post office, 'the stamps don't work.' For all those in Canada expecting a postcard from China, cross your fingers that someone sends the memo to China in the next couple weeks!