Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Fugong Market Highlights/Christmas greetings

First off, merry Christmas to those who celebrate it. My very Jewish family spent today in Chinatown at dim sum (delicious, as always) and then at a movie. Even though most everyone in Boston's Chinatown speaks Cantonese, it's still a little bit like being back in Kunming, and I have to admit that I do miss it (especially since Xiong Li Mei called me yesterday and I realized how much my Chinese has deteriorated.)

In any case, it's clear that my blog dropped off dramatically after I got home, but I remain set on finishing it. I've just also accepted the fact that it won't be quite as in-depth as the blog I kept up until this point. I have lots of beautiful pictures to share with all of you, and I'll let those do most of the talking, a sort of narrated slide show. So here I present to you, in the first installment: the Fugong marketplace.

China's rural economy is based largely on markets. The largest urban center in a given area (and in really rural places it's not always particularly urban, just urban by comparison) hosts a market every week or so (in Fugong's case ever 5 days, with the 10 days mark being the larger market.) People from all over Nujiang came to buy and sell produce, Lisu jewelry and traditional paraphenalia, and miscellaneous interesting stuff (salt crystals as big as my head, walking sticks, cross bows). Even on the days I was feeling sickest I went to the market to watch the people and take pictures. Lots of pictures.

You said you wanted half a pig? Well, here it is.

Selling traditional crossbows

Young ladies in Lisu garb from Tengchong (an area outside of Nujiang)

Two old ladies gossip on the street corner

Bickering over the price of greens

Traditional woven Lisu baskets

Bamboo pipes (and a charming Lisu nainai smoking one)

Faces at the market

(This might be my favorite picture of all the ones I took in Nujiang)

On the last day I stayed in Fugong, I went to the market and bought a traditional Lisu headdress that I had been eying for the last few market days. There was an old Lisu lady selling it, and she didn't speak any Mandarin so whenever I asked after it I had to ask through a younger woman who wore dirty pink sneakers and bad teeth, and who I assume was her granddaughter. She kept naming outlandish prices for the headdress, and I would try to bargain but she wouldn't budge. It was clear that the piece was well-made and valuable: it had real, hand-cut bone circles along the forehead and half of the beads were clearly antique. I finally decided that this would be my treat to myself from China, but I wasn't willing to pay the Y500 (about $75) she was quoting me. As I stood in the drizzle, I attracted attention from around the market (as I was the only white person there.) People came over to try and help mediate, and they all agreed that the nainai was giving me a raw deal. "Give her a break!" they yelled in a mix of Lisu and Mandarin, but after conceding Y150 she would not yield. I ultimately bought the headdress for Y350 (about $50), with the local price being Y180-200. But I know that that nainai probably ate for months off that money, and the extra $20 was very little to me. Plus, of course, it makes a good story. Later that day I also bought a traditional Lisu skirt (as seen above) for unmarried women-- light blue print with a white stripe down the middle-- and Foster dad brought me a handmade button-down unisex shirt as a going away present. I left Fugong that day well-outfitted and slightly melancholy.

Monday, October 15, 2007


So here I am, four months later, done with my raw abroad experience and trying to process it into some sort of thesis and into something managable to think about, understand, and allow in certain ways to affect who I am and the life I'm leading. I'm especially thinking about this in light of where I am: Easthampton, MA visiting my ex-roommate, Tania. Tania's here living with her boyfriend and going parttime to Hampshire while she works on Hampshire's equivalent of a thesis. They've set up a lovely apartment that really rings of home, and it's been nice to finally meet Christopher when I heard so much about him.

We've had a wonderful time catching up and reminiscing, I showed her all sorts of pictures from my research and from Xinjiang, and we've talked about how we adjusted, and are continuing to adjust, to life back in the states. I think this time together (along with the fact that I am officially done with my Fulbright scholarship application for the time being) has boosted my drive to continue with this blog. I have so much more to talk about, and things are still developing-- I spoke to Xiong Li Mei last week over the phone, for one thing. So stay tuned, there's much more to come. I can't wait to share it with you all.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Back After These Messages

As you may have noticed, it's been a few weeks since my last entry. Although I don't intend by any means for this to become a trend, the first month and a half of my senior year is proving very demanding, specifically because of preparations for two fellowship applications which would allow me to continue my wanderings in this lovely world. As such, I'm afraid it is unrealistic to expect that I will have a new entry for y'all (continuing the recording of my adventures in Fugong and beyond) until after October 4, the deadline for the Fulbright Scholarship. So, I suggest you go about your business until that date, and then check back on this very page for a brand, spankin' new account of Chinese hijinks, including but not limited to: the Chinese medical system, my trip to a Lisu wedding, the lovely nightmare that was Laomudeng, and a three-day adventure to proto-Tibet and the wilds of northern Nujiang

Saturday, September 8, 2007

A Fugong Family

There are three counties within Nujiang Prefecture-- Lushui (of which Liuku is the seat), Fugong, and Gongshan (Gongshan's county seat has a different name, but everyone pretty much just calls it Gongshan.) Since I'd already spent more than two weeks in Lushui county (mostly in Liuku), and because Liuku was currently horribly hot and humid, I opted to stay there only as long as it took to get in touch with a woman who had helped me during my ISP. She recommended some people who might be able to find me a translator during my stay this time around in Nujiang, given that Xiong Li Mei (who helped me during ISP time) was in classes taking final exams and was thus unable to accompany me to northern Nujiang. With a phone number clutched in hand, I rode the four and a half hour bus to Fugong, the middle county, alone and, frankly, pretty scared. I had forgotten my guidebook and had never been to Fugong before. I had no idea how I would find out where to stay, find my way around, make the beginnings of a life which are neccessary to do anthropological research. I looked out the window at the countryside, which was green almost to the point of ridiculousness, and silently freaked out.

On the way to Fugong

The incredible greenery of Nujiang

When I stepped off the bus, I had neither map nor hotel recommendation, only a brochure I'd been given at a travel agency in Liuku with listings of some places to stay, but no addresses, only phone numbers. I went inside to the bus station desk and asked about the nearest hotel, only to be told that the station itself doubled as a place to stay, for Y50 a night, or about $6.50, the cheapest around. For awhile after I had settled in I considered changing hotels (the place was clean but very worn and a little bit shabby), but it ultimately didn't seem worth it.

Fugong city as it turns into village on the nearby mountainside

The night I arrived in Fugong, I called a contact Lu Laoshi had given to me, and he insisted on taking me out to dinner with a coworker of his, a Lisu woman a little older than I. Unfortunately, she was to return to Kunming for summer term classes the next day, but after an awkward dinner where I picked (my stomach wasn't feeling excellently, having yet to recover from my Kunming upset) and they watched me pick (they had already eaten), my new Lisu friend brought me to a local teahouse, where we drank locally brewed beer and I heard several traditional Lisu stories from her and her friends.

Unfortunately, the local beer did very little to improve my stomach situation, and I spent the next day or two feeling rather cruddy (which would, sadly, become a trend.) I was also really sad that my new friend had to leave so fast, as it seemed like we got along winningly. Luckily, the man who had introduced us had another woman in mind to help me instead. Xiao Cui was a 30 year old traditional dance teacher in the local Cultural Bureau, with an 8 year old son, a husband working outside Nujiang (a fairly common familial set-up), and a 19-year-old half sister living with her. Over the next few weeks Xiao Cui, who I called jiejie, or "elder sister" and her meimei (younger sister) became part of my Lisu family. They took me to the village where jiejie grew up to meet their grandmother. They took me to their cousin's traditional Lisu wedding-- more on that in a separate entry. And when I was sick, they brought me rice, bread, and Sprite (which was, sadly most of my diet for the better part of two weeks.)

My Fugong translator, Xiao Cui (on the left) and her younger sister

For sick I was, and everything seemed to aggravate it in some way, whether I ate bland porridge or fried rice (admittedly a bad idea.) For almost half a month I was able to eat almost nothing, and IV treatments and two rounds of Cipro (as long-term readers of this blog will remember) did nothing. Around this time, Xiang Yang Jiang, the man I shall refer to regularly as Foster Dad made his appearance. He was another cultural scholar I met through the guanxi (relations/connections) system, a friend of Lu Laoshi's friend. But as soon as he heard I was sick he stepped in and became more than a scholarly source. He and his wife would regularly show up at my modest hotel room. "Put on your shoes, we're going out!" they'd say, then bring me to a restaurant and make me sit there until I ate a whole bowl of rice porridge. Foster Dad often gave me fatherly lectures, with topics like "The Importance of Your Health" and "Just Exactly How Unneccessary and Space-Wasting All That Stuff You Brought Here Is." If it hadn't been for the fact that I realized that this was the only way he knew to be fatherly toward me and to the fact that I generally found his behavior interesting and/or entertaining, it would have driven me crazy. As it was, I was occasionally tempted to say "For Christ's sake, I'm in China on my own, let me make my own damn decisions!" Luckily, I don't know how to say "For Christ's sake" in Mandarin. Harhar.

Doing research in Fugong involved a combination of talking to officials in the Cultural Bureau, exploring the splendid once-every-five-days market that took place on the Main Street (and warrants its own individual blog entry), and travelling to the countryside around Fugong to interview elderly sources about life fifty years ago and all the stories they could remember. I would get into one of the motorcycle cabs (modified cycles with rickety red cabs on the back, also known as "cyclos" in some places) with my translator and a collection of gifts (usually rice wine, soda, and an assortment of snacks.) We would whiz down the road that curved with the river, stopping at some village 10-25 minutes outside of town (Fugong has about 10,000 people living in the city and about 80,000 in the countryside) to climb down or up the valley slope to somebody's one-room bungalow. I eventually had intervewied the four oldest residents of Xiao Cui's home village. One man and one woman (called nainai and yeye, grandmother and grandfather, out of respect) were so aged that they weren't sure exactly how old they were-- they were born before the idea of keeping track of time in a linear (rather than cyclical) fashion had come to the area. The man was, by his estimation, around 80. And the woman thought she was probably older than 100-- she says the 80-year-old man was about around 8 or 9 when she got married. It was incredible to hear from them about what life was like during Dynastic China away from the Imperial Eye, about the turbulent times of the Cultural Revolution. I felt so privileged.

The 100-year old nainai

Nainai's traditional Lisu house-- note the woven floor, the lack of furniture, the open fire

When I began to feel a little bit better, I started to take trips to outlying areas of Fugong county-- Laomudeng, center of Nu culture(which gets its own entry, and where I fell off the 5-foot ledge), to farther villages, to a traditional wedding (again, its own entry), and on a sight-seeing expedition to the local geological attraction. Shi yue liang is an enormous hole in one of the local mountains, apparently almost 30 feet tall in person. From far away (which is the only one can view it without undertaking a backpacking expedition), it looks like a big,misshapen moon peeking out of the greenery (the effect is caused by the perpetually misty sky showing through.) That's where it gets its name, too-- "Bright moon in the mountain."

Shi yue liang, the so-called "bright moon in the mountain," about an hour outside of Fugong, and source of many Lisu and Nu folkstories

I ended up spending more time than I bargained for in Fugong, ultimately, due to my extended bout of gastric distress (which was finally mercifully cured by discovering the correct and more extreme anti-biotic-- $1.00 for a bottle) and the fall that left me on bedrest for a week. But it was a good thing, too, because I started to blend into Fugong's everyday existence (which is not to say that I did not get stared at constantly). One of the things I liked to do most was wander the streets and see what surprising things I encountered-- a streetside shoemaker, a small footbridge across the roaring Nu River, a teahouse with Christmas lights festooned across the small patio glowing in the dusk, an old woman in traditional Lisu dress bringing her day's crops from the fields, an old Lisu man smoking his bamboo pipe on a stoop. Fugong never failed to surprise me.

The streetside shoemaker

Wonderful old Lisu man with his pipe

Lisu bags tied to a tree on market day

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Kunming, Again

The next two weeks of my stay in China were a mix of procrastination, vacation, and stomach flu. When I first arrived back in Kunming, by myself for real after 5 months of a support network of Thai and American friends, parents, etc, I felt pretty intimidated by the prospect of another five weeks alone in such an alien place. My intimidation wasn't for no reason-- although my ISP experience was wonderful and fulfilling, it was also (at times) horribly frustrating and lonely. I wasn't feeling quite up to facing that with no one to text sarcastically to (after a wonderful mishap which allowed us to hang out for a day, Diana went off to Hong Kong and then Taiwan to finish our her summer), so I tried to make some Nujiang resource connections in Kunming (mostly failing, unfortunately), ate a lot of American breakfast food at Salvador's and other coffee shops on Foreigner Street, and took a mental vacation. During this time, I caught up with Kevin (the Thai-American-Chinese Grad student I'd become friends with over the semester), made friends with an exchange student named Ben from Virginia, had dinner with Lu Laoshi, and met John's girlfriend (and John) at longlast, and had Dim Sum with my Chinese teachers/friends.

My Chinese teachers, Gao Laoshi (age 26) and Zeng Laoshi (age 28), who became good friends of mine, at Dim Sum during Kunming v. 2.0

I looked upon the time as respite from the looming darkness of Research Mode, and for that reason I may have been guilty of staying just a little too long. It was so very tempting-- getting to see John again, and meet his lovely other half, was really nice, and Ben and I had some crazy adventures together, going to the Buddhist temple complex down the street from campus and seeing a Buddhist funeral, using the pool at his apartment, trying and failing to watch "The Graduate" in Chinese.

Part of the temple complex down the street from campus

Unfortunately, that was when stomach flu part 2 (which would eventually extend to parts 3, 4, and 5) set in, and I was forced to stay in Kunming an extra 3 or 4 days, as the prospect of being sick on a 10-hour bus ride was not particularly appealing. That part was pretty frustrating, as I was already a little bit mad at myself for procrastinating so long, but there was nothing to be done about it. I spent my days alternately venturing out to take pictures and enjoy the city and sitting in my room shotgunning Pepto and reading a bad John Grisham book. At least I got to take some nice shots of Kunming street life and my environment there as a whole:

Kunming streets

The little-old-man er hu player who always played at the entrance to Foreigner's Street. He just looks like he should be an erhu player. I think it's the fu manchu.

Green Lake Park

Finally after several days of frustration bordering on boredom, after exchanging my bus ticket three times, I was able to hop a sleeper bus to Liuku. As Liuku in the summer is pretty much as hot, humid, and unpleasant as a place might possibly be, I only stayed there one night, long enough to get hooked up with someone who might find me a translator in Fugong. And then I was off again, to the last part of my journey-- thesis research in Nujiang valley all by my lonesome.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Perspectives from the Eastern Horizon, Column 1

Continuing the run of articles I've written about my experience in China, my first column of a series they're calling "Perspectives from the Eastern Horizon" appeared in The Belmont Citizen-Herald last week.

The inside of this airplane is ordinary—uncomfortable seats that look like they were upholstered by someone locked in a darkened room; flight attendants, starched and smiling; a man in the next row snoring lightly, his chin on his chest. It’s what’s outside that is remarkable. I am flying over Xinjiang, China, an area of savagely serrated mountains and vast deserts with nothing much in between to roll out the welcome mat. I stare out the window at a range of peculiarly ragged sandstone peaks that look like crumpled newspaper ascending from an arid, dusty floor, and think about the places to which this semester of travel and study abroad in China has brought me.

Just last night I was in Beijing, luxuriating in a well-appointed hotel room, an island of quiet comfort in the midst of that smoggy, perpetually hurried city, resting after an afternoon of playing the history student to the city’s many ancient sites. Three days previously I was taking a turn as tourist in smog-choked Xi’an, home of the famous Terracotta Soldiers, an all-clay army one particularly arrogant Chinese emperor had manufactured and buried in his tomb to ensure his continued rule in the afterlife. Two nights before that, I was living the expatriot life in the warm air of Kunming, Yunnan province, in the far southwest of the country, working on a mammoth 36 page term paper while enjoying the triumphant feeling of familiarity with a place that in many ways embodies the opposite characteristics of my homeland. And four weeks before that I was Girl Anthropologist, spending my study abroad program’s independent research period learning about the folkstories of ethnic minorities (similar to our Native American tribes) in the remote Nujiang Valley, an area of towering emerald mountains and ferociously thundering rapids a two-hour drive from the Myanmar border.

Perhaps it is the exaggerated distance from my window seat to the landscape below, the perspective afforded by air travel, that allows me to be struck at this moment by how profoundly disconnected each of those wide-ranging experiences has felt, how independent each one seems from the others--a separate epoch, almost a different lifetime. I feel as if I am a child looking at the different rooms in a dollhouse where the maker has forgot to put in doorways. Each of these experiences is a separate component in one body, a different and discreet view onto the whole vista of my experience. My explorations are united in their role as a part of this whole, but to me they feel as if they have no inherent connections, as if each was completed by a different person. Yesterday night, in that wonderfully cool hotel room in that city many times the size of Los Angeles, I couldn’t sleep. Recalling my adventures in the dark, the thought suddenly came to me: “I’m like a cat, I have so many lives.” Thinking about this admittedly curious gem, I smile a little. There’s nothing so simultaneously silly and profound as 3 AM epiphanies.

Despite the tendency of that hour to produce jewels of absurdity, I do think there’s an important idea to be uncovered here. Growing up, living the way I have, it’s been easy to forget how lucky I am to have enjoyed the opportunities I’ve been offered. The prospect of being to live the lives of so many different people, whether they be expat, researcher, and student or father, lawyer, and golfer, is a luxury that not everyone can afford. The chance to try on so many facets of the world is truly something to stop and contemplate, if not for which to show gratitude.

The plane is now traveling over snowy, craggy peaks that proclaim that they mean business as they cut ragged holes in the cotton wool clouds. I can feel the bracelet I bought while playing explorer on the Laos border resting against my wrist, the grit of sand from a trip to the Gobi Desert wedged in my sandals. And I realize: we are the one piece of evidence that all the lives we live exist in concert, the one place where our pattern of experience converges into something tangible, something concrete.

The mountains look fierce, sharp, and dangerous, and yet from here surmountable, as if I could leap easily, lightly, from one peak to the next. And so it is with my various lives, spread out below me through the miracle of perspective, a distance that will only increase as I grow older. Yet another piece of richness to add to the collection of my experience, then, to have the memories of my many lives to cherish for years to come, to hop from peak to peak in my mind’s eye like so many newspaper mountains.

I'm hoping to write several more columns for appearance in the Citizen Herald once things get in control on campus. Also, for those of you interested in following my writing appearances on other subjects, I will have a piece in The Portland Phoenix coming out in early September-- I'll provide a link here once it appears.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rain in the Desert-- Two Days in Dunhuang

Well, it's clearly a little bit more difficult to keep this blog up when I'm in the US. But I still am very much intent on finishing out the documentation of my amazing adventure in China, as slowly as is neccessary.

The last part of our Xinjiang trip took us to Dunhuang, Gansu province. Dunhuang is not actually a part of Xinjiang at all, but it's the next stop on the Silk Road, an important and historical nexus in the geographical center of China. Dunhuang marks the end of the Gobi desert as well, and the overnight train we took to get there took us across hundreds of miles of flat, open, sandy nothing. That night, we schmoozed with our train car-mates-- a few Americans, a couple of Canadians, and some Chinese businessmen on the way to a conference who were very interested in hearing about my time in China. It turns out that the Americans, a son and father travelling together, were on a trip for the son's graduation present from Rutger's. When he told me he was from West Orange, New Jersey a bell rang in my head. Turns out he carpooled to high school for two years with Zack, a good friend of mine from Wesleyan. I've said it so many times now it's almost a mantra-- the world is so incredibly big and so very small, all at once.

I woke up from restless sleep over rhythmically clanking tracks to see rain pouring in sheets onto the waves of desert. It was raining so hard onto the hot sand that fog was pouring up from the ground, making it hard to see. When we got to Dunhuang, our guide informed us that it rains maybe 10 or 11 times a year. "You've brought us luck!" she said, as we drove down the soaking but arid and sandy road to the city. That day, we went to the Mugao Grottoes, a set of stunning cave paintings and sculptures in an extensive framework of caves, much much better preserved than the grottoes we'd seen in Turpan. Not only was there still vibrant paint on much of the artwork, but none of them had been defaced by Muslims on hajj (holy war), a major problem with Buddhist art in Xinjiang. The grottoes numbered in the high hundreds, but only some of them were open to visitors at any given time, to keep the more exquisite works from light damage. There was one cave with 10,000 Buddhas painted all over the ceiling. Another featured a 58-meter tall Buddha, one of the tallest sitting Buddhas in China. Walking into the cave I could only see two enormous feet with gilded toenails, a sash slung between them with red-detailed paint. And then the cavern opened out and the Buddha shot up up up into the gloom. Before the government paid for all the caves to be closed off (which is a shame because of the loss of such open-air majesty, but makes sense in terms of preventing damage), the Buddha would have been looking out with a strangely morose and wise air over the entire dusty valley. Now he looks at the wall in front of him. Unfortunately (but again, understandably), we weren't allowed to take pictures in the caves.

By the time we finished at the grottoes, the rain had cleared and the sky was a searing blue. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and ate dinner with our guide, who assured us that rain today meant sun tomorrow. And yet-- we woke the next morning to yet more pounding rain. Our guide remarked on our unusual "luck," but we felt grumpy. What were the odds that we would get stuck with crummy weather two days in a row? We searched the city for a decent place to eat and got wetter and wetter, finally coming upon a Uighur-style restaurant where they made noodles for us by hand and, beaming, showed us pictures of their sons and grandsons.

After lunch we set out on what turned into an unfortunate wild goose chase through the Gobi desert. Our guide had been misinformed about the time it would take to go to two places of interest about 100 km outside of town, and the driving rain made everything slower and, worse, washed out the scenery into a bland blend of khaki and gray. After almost three hours hurtling through the ecru emptiness, we got to an ancient Silk Road gate, basically a forbidding clay square rising up out of banks of desert grass. Not far from that, we viewed a surviving section of the original Great Wall. Not many people know that although the Han emperor started the construction of the Great Wall in around 100 AD, it was built and rebuilt in bits and chunks for the next 1600 years. The portion of the wall we viewed in Dunhuang was one of the 2000 year old portions, made of turf and mud that's become brick over the years. Despite the rain, seeing the wall (which was once over 10 feet high) was fascinating.

The Ancient Han Great Wall, a long way from Beijing

The Beijing Great Wall (for purposes of comparison)

As we turned around to do the long drive home, the weather started to turn in our favor again. By the time we'd arrived back in Dunhuang, the sky was clear and the sun was drying out the sodden sand. My parents were disgruntled about the length and bumpiness of our journey and just wanted to call it quits, but I convinced them to go to the last Dunhuang attraction-- the famous dunes that form the very end of the Gobi desert. It was well worth our visit. The desert in Dunhuang looked nothing like it had in Turpan, and the dunes were positively breathtaking, like something out of National Geographic. My dad and I undertook a sweaty hike up one of them, climbing basically a ladder-like set of steps up the long, high flank. The view on the other side was incredible, a sea of dunes undulating, unmarred and unmarked, into the distance. On the way down, I decided to swallow my anxiety and try the Y10 dune slide. Seated on a little wooden sled, I raced down the second half of the dune, shrieking and getting sand everywhere. It was so much fun!

The dunes at the end of the Gobi Desert. Damn.

Sliding down the dune

We boarded a plane to Beijing early the next morning, where my parents caught a plane back to the US and I began the next leg of my journey-- Yunnan alone.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Exploring the Gobi Desert, Part 1: Turpan

Turpan (which is "Tulufan" in Mandarin) is an oasis town in the middle of the Gobi Desert, about three hours by car from Urumqi. The day we drove there was cloudy and very windy-- we got out in the middle of the desert just to look at the vast flat nothing (not quite what I was picturing in my first real desert experience, but that came later) and feel the incredible wind blasting across the nothing at more nothing. On some days, it's considered dangerous to drive across that portion of the desert because the wind can knock your car over. Our guide said it even derailed a train a few years back. But on the day we drove across, we could just feel it pushing at our car, knocking it around like a boat. Our driver had experience with the conditions, though, and we arrived safely.

There was a wealth of things to do in Turpan, and we miraculously managed to squeeze them all in in the 36 hour period we stayed. The first place we went was to the ruins of a 2000 year old city set basically on an island in the middle of a split river. The city existed for hundreds of years before it was abandoned, mostly because its location, with water easily accessible and sheer cliffs on both sides acting as natural defenses against enemies, was so perfect. The city, called Jiahe, was really huge and quite remarkable to see-- the skeletons of limestone buildings, reminiscent of Hopi cliff dwellings, which had been carved down into the cliff rather than built up from its surface. Additionally, we visited at the end of a grey, achingly hot day, and other visitors were few and far between, a blessing in tourist-obsessed China (I have already had several opportunities to enumerate here my hatred for Chinese tourists). The silence was really powerful as we walked among the ruins, and our guide even took us out to the edge of the cliff (not a spot one is supposed to go to, given the delicacy of the ruins) where we could see verdant green blossoming out from where the river ran far below.

The ancient city of Jiahe

Approaching the Turpan oasis from the desert was very dramatic. My first thought was that the sudden wave of darkness extending toward the horizon was a large body of water, a lake, almost an inland sea. Not until we had travelled much closer did I realize that the darkness was comprised of trees, grass, and shrubs fit closely together, a remarkable contrast with the barren, sweeping lines and khaki colors of the desert. The oasis is something like one hundred square kilometers, very large, although the city itself only extends through a small portion of that. The rest is comprised of farmland, mostly vineyards. Turpan is very famous for its grapes and grape products-- wine and raisins, to be specific. We visited a winery and learned about how wine is made in the desert, did some tasting, and some exploring. I had some really interesting grape juice-- it was much milder than the grape juice I've had in America, almost like it had water in it (they assured me it didn't). We just don't get a real variety of grapes in America, I guess.

Turpan Grape trellises

The winery housed a large market selling Uighur and other trinkets and more types of raisins than you ever imagined to exist. We weren't really interested in buying things but we took a look around, anyway. As I stopped to glance at some dubious looking antiques, a man in the traditional Uighur Muslim skullcap came up to me and asked, "Ni shi shenme shaoshu minzu?" which means "What minority ethnic group are you from?" This is remarkable, because he did not ask "Ni shi cong shen me di fang lai de?" ("Where are you from?") and the former question (the one he actually asked) assumes that the person being asked is a native of China (the phrase "shaoshu minzu" specifically refers to minority groups in China). The man thought that I and my family were of one of the many ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, Kazakh or Russian! He thought we were native Chinese! And what's more, when I tried to explain that we were from America, he wouldn't believe me! It was a pretty remarkable thought, and made me feel pretty good about my Chinese skills. Definitely a high point in confidence there, and the situation also says a lot about the ethnic situation and the standards of who "looks Chinese" in that area.

From the winery we went to visit a site of a special kind of irrigation canal (whose name, which is Uighur, I can't remember) that's been around the area for 2000 years. Turpan is the second lowest point on earth (The true lowest point is the Dead Sea in Israel, meaning I've now gone to the top two!) and the ancestors of the people in Turpan engineered an irrigation system that guides snowmelt from the nearby Hindu-Kush mountains down the plain. Gravity was on their side, and so they've had clean, running water for 2000 years, which has allowed them an extraordinary quality of life as well as helped them carefully control the agriculture that keeps that life going. They also added some engineering craziness of an extreme ahead-of-their-time caliber to the system to avoid cave-ins in the canals, assure air circulation, and allow for tunnel upkeep. Many of the Uighurs in the area still make use of the canals, and the luckier ones have them running right through their houses.

A 2000 year old irrigation canal

The next day, our exploration of the desert around Turpan continued with a visit to some famous grottoes (although not as famous as the ones we would see in Dunhuang) where dramatic Buddhist cave paintings hundreds of years old can still be seen (although many of them have been defaced by Muslims from the area on Holy War.) The best part of this visit was the amazing desert scenery we passed through to get there. The weather had cleared up since the day before, and the sky was incredibly blue, the Flaming Mountains (so named because of their red color) dramatic. In fact, the famous/famously tacky Chinese movie "The Monkey King" (showed on both PBS and Chinese CCTV incessantly) was filmed in part there because of the "typical" desert scenery.

When we got to the grottoes, it turned out that there were a few people out front waiting for tourists to lure them into riding camels. But rather than in a tame little boring circle (like many of the services in the Turpan area), this particular group went on tours into the surrounding desert. My parents and I decided to try it out, donning hats and excessive quantities of sunscreen, and went out on camels for about an hour and a half. The ascent up the enormous dune/mountain in the back of the grottoes was fun and not particularly taxing: the camels walked steadily upward, and I hung onto the hump in front of me, which jiggled amusingly, to keep my balance. There was no one around anywhere as our Uighur guides led us into the open sand, roads in sight, just the enormity of sky, the valley stretching away into sandy haze. We came upon a few desert trees, just skeletons of vegetation that flourished as long as a thousand years ago. Our guide explained later that the Gobi Desert used to be a sea, and so in the interim between body of water and desert there was a good amount of plant life. This millenium, however, there's been so little moisture in the area that there are no bacteria around to decompose dead wood. And so a tree might have lived for 2 or 300 years in the desert; then it would take another hundred years to die. And then it would stand, slowly eroding, for as many as 5 or 600 years. Really remarkable.

On the way back down the dune, the cons of riding without a saddle (we were just resting on blankets between the two humps) became apparent. A camel's gate is fairly uneven, and staying on at a fairly severe angle going down the dune proved difficult/uncomfortable (as one had to clamp one's legs together painfully for long periods of time). Although they didn't understand English, I'm fairly sure that our guides could infer the meaning of my cries of "Oh my God, I'm going to fall off. No seriously, I'm going to fall off!", and they rerouted us to a less extreme route back. Needless to say, we all had a little trouble walking the next day.

My family on camels

Amazing desert landscapes

That night, before we caught an overnight train to Dunhuang, an old Silk Road trading point in Gansu Province, several hundred kilometers to the southeast, we took a drive through the Grape Valley, an area of much wealth where Uighurs make money hand over fist on raisins, wine, and cultivation of other fruit and nuts. Several of the families in the area run what are basically small restaurants in their houses, and so we were able to see the inside of a prosperous Uighur house (they were one of the lucky ones with an irrigation canal running right through their living room.) The house was very interesting-- open and airy with a roof of grape vines over many of the rooms-- and very little furniture, just stacks of hand-woven rugs to sleep on and a raised platform for entertaining guests.

The inside of the Uighur house where we ate dinner-- traditional noodles with lamb, fresh apricots and raisons, and almonds

Doors to Uighur houses are traditionally hand-painted

Our bellies filled, we set off for the train station, to catch the train that would take us to the last stop on our week-long exploration of the Silk Road.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Home again, Home again, Jiggity Jig

Well, I've been home now almost a week and things are starting to fall into place again.

It wasn't a fun journey home-- due to a snafu in Los Angeles, I was in transit a full 42 hours. I did manage an aisle seat for the 14 hour jaunt from Hong Kong to LA, which was lovely (well, lovelier than the middle seat would have been), but once I got to LA I was informed by my father, who was, extremely luckily, in town on business, that our plane had been cancelled, and we had been rebooked on a flight 12 hours later. He still had his hotel and rental car though, so the trip ended up fairly painless. After collapsing in the hotel room for 4 hours, we went to nearby Hermosa Beach, a little beach town right outside LA proper. (Or is it still LA proper? I've never understood) and had excellent Mexican food, people watched, and walked out onto the pier to watch the sunset. Then we got on a red eye, but not to Boston, no that would have been too simple-- to Washington DC.

Funny story, though, and by "funny" I mean "wahhhh." We sat for 45 minutes on the runway until the pilot came on, all "Sorry folks, we're having a weight distribution problem, we'll get that resolved and be on our way soon." Apparently what "get that resolved" means is "take some people's bags off the plane, including Alissa's." Needless to say, we had to run to catch our connection to Boston because we came in so late (luckily our flight was just one concourse over, if it had been in another terminal we never would have caught it) and when we finally got to Logan around 10 AM, my bag was nowhere to be found. The United people promised it would be at our house by 4 PM. Then they promised it would be there by 6 PM. Midnight. 8 AM.

My bag finally arrived at our house at noon. The next day. Argh.

After which we drove ourselves up to Maine, and the rest of the week was devoted to relaxing, rereading Harry Potter (I'm almost finished with the third book), catching up with friends, and starting to try and wrap my head around the fact that I'm Back. So far, things seem to be alright. I'm settling in, getting used to the soft beds, the constant barrage of English, revelling in amazing summer fruit and incredible cleanliness of public bathrooms. I think it helps how starkly different my lives are in China and here. It just feels like a different person did all those things in a different world, a different universe. Hopefully sometime soon I'll start coming out of the clouds and understanding that this is more than just a dream of home.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Take Me Home, Country Roads

Well, it's official. I'm leaving on a jet plane, and yeah, I don't know when I'll be back again. But I know it'll be sometime, I love Yunnan too much not to come back. And so, in lieu of my continued adventures in China, I present to you: Things I'm Going to Miss and Things I'm Really Not Going To Miss about China/America. (Note: I will continue recounting my various antics when I reach the other side of the Pacific. Continue checking back for continuation of our Xinjiang trip, my two weeks in Kunming, my Nujiang research, and my three days as a Pumi peasant.)

Things I'm Going to Miss About China

-Outdoor markets
-Bargaining for anything and everything
-How incredibly cheap everything is. Seriously. Even when it's expensive-- it's cheap.
-Being able to look forward to have a new experience every day-- whether it be as small as a new word learned or as big as a new place travelled
-Seeing people wearing traditional, non-Western clothing
-Being able to meet people whose way of life is so different from mine
-Feeling badass for speaking Chinese so well
-Salvadore's American breakfast and amazing ice cream (I'm eating some as I type)
-The general laidback atmosphere of Kunming
-Feeling like a celebrity, like something worth getting excited over, just because of where I'm from and how I look
-The incredibly generous, giving, warm people who let me into their lives and their homes in the last 5 months
-Text messaging in Chinese
-Old people doing exercises in the park
-Old people playing majiang and smoking pipes
-Old people crinkling up their eyes and smiling toothlessly at me because I'm a foreigner
-Chinese children ages 0-8 and their ridiculous adorableness.
-Chinese babies with their butts hanging out
-People who use abaci in shops
-DVDs at Y5 a pop
-Saying "Wei?" when I answer my cell phone

Things I'm Really Not Going To Miss

-The beds, which feel like sleeping on a board (sometimes, you actually are)
-Fearing for my life every time I cross a street
-Fearing for my life every time I get in a car
-Having to worry about where I might be sick next
-Feeling like a curiousity/freak because of the color of my skin and the shape of my eyes
-Squat toilets
-Having to carry my own toilet paper with me everywhere and sometimes forgetting
-Bathrooms where you get fined if you poop
-Censored internet
-The rainy season
-Accidentally eating hot peppers in supposedly un-spicy food
-People commenting on my weight (cultural norm or not)
-The way important things (like banks and hospitals) are only open during the week, as if people don't need things on the weekends
-Wearing the same shirt 8 times and the same pants 12 times before laundry day
-Having to handwash my socks and underwear
-Freezing cold showers in the morning
-Bus drivers who don't stop for bathroom breaks until everyone is jumping up and down and crossing their legs
-Eight hour bus rides over moon landscapes masquerading as roads
-The pollution-- air, water, and so very much trash
-Horrid Chinese sugar pop music
-Exhausting myself speaking Chinese every day

Things I'm Looking Forward To About the US

-Sandwiches! (I was watching an episode of "Scrubs" the other day on my computer, and they were eating sandwiches. And I thought, "Wow! I totally forgot about sandwiches! Awesome!")
-Hot water! Whenever I want it!
-Fresh fruit without having to worry or take a million years to peel it!
-Drinking tap water! From the tap!
-Listening to English-language radio
-Summertime crap TV (everything I missed in the spring)
-Reuniting with friends, of course
-Forks and knives
-Rereading the entire Harry Potter series, and then Harry Potter 7
-Well-paved roads
-Cars equipped with actual shock absorbers
-Being able to read all my friends' blogs again

*Note that these lists are subject to change and will likely be added to once I get home and can see more clearly the things I am enjoying and those that I am missing. Then I will re-post this entry.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

At the Crossroads: Urumqi

Our next stop after Kasghar was Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. We were technically only in Urumqi 24 hours, or maybe 30, but it was still a really interesting place to explore. Rather than hints of the Middle East, Urumqi was run through with splashes of Russian culture. Which makes sense, as Urumqi is in the far north of Xinjiang, near the Russian and Kazakh borders.

There were a couple of important things to note about the Urumqi airport. Despite being tiny it, A) Featured a ridiculous view of a HUGE mountain not far away

(Said mountain)

and B) It had two way escalators! I know, right? But it's true. At first I thought all the escalators in the place were broken because they weren't moving. But then I noticed that one would go one way (up, for instance) for a few minutes. And then, when I happened to look in that direction again, it would be going down! Turns out they installed motion sensors at the top and bottom of the escalators and when they're triggered they make the escalators go the proper direction! Genius, energy saving, space saving, money saving. I stood in awe. And then got in a cab toward Urumqi.

The one major place we went in Urumqi was Tian Chi lake, about two hours drive outside of town through beautiful mountains. We took a cable car up to the top of the mountain, where the lake (whose name translates as "Heavenly") is nestled between snowy peaks. Really stunning. We took a boat ride around the perimeter, which was beautiful, a really good idea. There was also a very old tree (200 years or so), a fruit tree but I'm forgetting the type, at the lake. It's considered sacred because trees of its kind normally can't live above a certain altitude, but the altitude of the lake far exceeds this limit. There were a lot of prayer flags and strips of red ribbon and string festooning the tree, left there by people making wishes for healing or a good life.

Tian Chi Lake was also a really good place to the lives of Kazakh and other minority nomads in Xinjiang. Their Yurts (round canvas tents) were everywhere, some with goats or other livestock tied up outside. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to go into the Taklamakhan Desert (one of the largest in the world), but if we did we would have seen more of that. The Kazakhs and Kurds have been living in the deserts and high mountains of Xinjiang for thousands of years, and their lifestyle has barely changed. I think that's fascinating.

Tian Chi (Heavenly) Lake

Most of the rest of our time in Urumqi was spent exploring. One night, in search of a rumored Western Restaurant/Bar recommended by our guide, we ended up walking with a Mongolian man and his friend about a mile and a half through the streets, watching the city prepare for nightfall. He led us so far afield that after awhile we started to wonder if maybe he was trying to kidnap or scam us. But just when we were muttering to ourselves (in English, it's like a secret code here) about whether we should jump in a taxi and take off, there was the bar. Disaster averted, and their omelettes were delicious.

We also spent a good amount of time at the Urumqi bazaar. The stuff there wasn't as wonderful as what I found in Kashgar (an embroidered prayer cap, a gourd carved with Uighur language) but it was still cool (a traditional Uighur-patterned head scarf.) And the best part of it was the people watching. More even than in Kashgar, I felt like I was at the crossroads of somewhere-- so many different-looking people together. People in full-out Muslim dress, old Russian babushkas, Han businessmen, Mongolian cowboy types. The faces, too, I loved the faces in Xinjiang. The countless ways that DNA can blend characteristics together is so remarkable, especially at a crossroads like Urumqi. I walked the streets and just looked at faces. Our guide, Jimmy, told us that for a long time Urumqi was very important in Asian and African relations, the crossroads of the Upper and Lower Silk Roads, and I believe it.

Probably the weirdest and best thing we saw at the Urumqi bazaar: two fully barbequed and skinned lambs. Whole.

Images of Urumqi