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

Friday, July 20, 2007


After bidding smoggy, huge, and oh-so-very-Chinese Beijing adieu, my parents and I boarded a flight for Xinjiang. Xinjiang (which means "New Land" in Mandarin) is an enormous province in the very northwest of China that borders Pakistan, Kazakhstan, and Russia and is inhabited largely by the Uighur minority, a Eurasian Muslim group, as well as minorities of Kazakhs, Kurds, and Mongolians. We connected through Urumqi to Kashgar, about 400 km (200 miles) away from the Pakistani border. Kashgar was completely absent the China I've come to know and love. It was much more Central Asian (for good reason), closer to a Middle Eastern feel than an Asian vibe. Also: the landscape was spectacular. Even flying in I couldn't keep my eyes off the view.

Pictures from the Plane

Silly bureaucratic/stubborn Chinese government decision #902348092348: the whole country, despite being geographically larger than the US, functions as one time zone. This means that Kashgar, something like 2500 miles west of Beijing, is supposed to be on the same time. This also means that in Kashgar the sun comes up around 9:00 and sets around 11:30. Locally, people use an informal "Xinjiang time," which sets everything two hours early. Therefore, when we landed, we were greeted with the following sight (it reminded me a little of Alaska):

Kashgar, 10:30 PM

Our second surprise was our hotel, which was housed in the former Russian Embassy. I guess Russian tastes at the time of building ran along the lines of somebody who ate a bunch of potpourri and Art Deco text books and then threw up all over the place? It was entertaining, to say the least.

Our Kashgar hotel

The next morning we got up bright and early (which in Kashgar is 9:30, the sun hasn't even risen completely yet)and went to a millenia-long tradition in Kashgar: the Sunday animal market. I think that was where we really started to understand how much this Wasn't China Anymore, Toto. The hustle and bustle was that of any Chinese market, but the faces were so very different than the ones we were used to seeing, the smells, the sounds of people talking, bickering, joking. The signs of Islam everywhere (head coverings on the men, various degrees of veil-ing on the women), the Uighur bread (round and pitalike), the Uighur music (sort of a mix of sugary-sweet Chinese pop and the Arabic twang of Middle Eastern music). It was like being transported to a completely different country. This was a China I had never imagined.
My time in Xinjiang in general really made me rethink my definition of "who is Chinese," and my idea of "what a Chinese person looks like." People who looked like me, with brown hair, blue eyes, and hips spouted Mother-Tongue Mandarin. People who appeared 100% Han Chinese looked puzzled when I addressed them in Mandarin and then turned to their friends and continued a conversation in Kazakh. I guess when you get to the border of things this way, the lines blur. And in a world made of so many strong, bold lines, that experience is always the most powerful and moving.
Unfortunately, the pictures I'm posting don't do the experience justice. If you enjoy them, request further viewing when I get back(in 6 days!)

Scenes from the Kashgar Animal Market

Shave and a Haircut (two bits) at the Animal Market

The rest of the day was spent touring around Kashgar seeing the sights, and there were many. The first stop was the largest mosque in Kashgar. When, out of respect, I covered my arms and head with a scarf we'd brought for that purpose, some nearby worshippers asked our guide if I was Uighur (that wouldn't be the last time I'd be mistaken for a Chinese person... but that story comes later, during my Turpan experience.) The mosque was beautiful, really peaceful and spacious. No one was praying there at the moment-- it's only open to visitors when no prayer is happening, and as the holiest place in Kashgar it is only used for that purpose on Fridays.

The largest mosque in Kashgar

Inside the mosque (the first mosque I've ever been inside)

We also visited a tomb nearby the mosque. It's the thickest structure of its type, possibly in the world (or at least in Asia, I know that) and houses something like 9 generations of the same family, whose surname I am unfortunately currently forgetting. While we were walking around with our guide, an American man joined our group, asking if he could tag along. He introduced himself as the former CEO of eLong, which is the Chinese version of Expedia. Very odd to meet a big-wig like that in such an odd situation. He was quite a character, and he gave me his email, in case I ever need help in the .com world.

The tomb

For lunch, we ate at a traditional Uighur restaurant. Among Uighur's preferred foods are pilaf (a creamy mix of rice, egg, spices, and lamb), chuanr (shish kebabs, essentially), and lamian or hand-stretched noodles. They put heavy-duty spices on everything, so we were constantly having to ask for special orders. I found the food delicious, however (there was always fresh fruit juice, pomegranate or peach, to go with it)my mother's stomach didn't agree so much.

That evening, our guide took us exploring Kashgar's Old City, which was essentially like going back 2 or 300 years. The whole structure is that old, and its winding streets and stucco walls reminded me strongly of Jerusalem's Old City. Apparently, the Chinese government has built brand new apartments outside the city and is trying to get the Old City inhabitants to move into them because the old buildings are so vulnerable to earthquakes (which Xinjiang gets fairly often), but no one has moved there yet. Being there, I understood. Just walking through the streets I felt such a palpable connection to the past, to an old way of life almost lost. If my ancestors had lived there, I wouldn't want to leave either.

We walked the winding alleys, followed by adorable Uighur children begging us to take their pictures, peeking into ajar doorways, discovering tiny neighborhood mosques (in one a call to prayer was being chanted. It was incredibly haunting in the fading light). At one point, a Uighur woman approached us and asked us if we would like to see her house. It turns out she was running a homemade crafts business out of her bare, traditional living room, but that's always the kind of endeavor my parents and I like to support. And getting to see the inside of a Uighur house (there was a tree, inside! And so many beautiful carpets!) was incredible. Again, these pictures don't do the place justice. If you'd like to see more, I'll be happy to oblige.

Scenes from Kashgar's Old City

(The writing on the sign is Uighur script, a modified Arabic alphabet)

Said adorable Uighur children

Next time: Time to break out the White Russians-- Urumqi

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

My Left Foot, Volume Two

So the good news is that my foot is not fractured. After much hullaballoo, an under-construction hospital building (what optimists would refer to as "Radiology"), and much cajoling in order to get them to give me a lead apron, I took two sets of X-Rays and the doctor, "couldn't see a big problem." I don't really know what this means, but I looked at the X-rays and there wasn't anything in there that screamed "fracture," so I'm taking it as a win. That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt, though. I'm hobbling along with one crutch and trying not to think about it too much.

After some sad goodbying with my interpreter and her sister (whom I'd gotten pretty close to, they're the only Chinese people I've met so far who share my sense of humor and we giggled a lot together) I hopped a bus to Gongshan, the northernmost city in the Nujiang Valley. We went to Bingzhongluo, another town one hour north, today, and were within one hour's drive of Tibet. I kind of wanted to tell our driver to gun it and not look back, but... not so interested in getting caught by the law, and I didn't have my things with me. Tibet will come another time.

Anyway, I've been here a day and a half now and will be here another day and a half. I'm getting tired, but this last week should be fun-- back in Lanping with Jackson, Linda, and Xiong Li Mei, who is on summer vacation. I'll get to visit Xiong Li Mei's village and help her tend goats, which is her job when she's home from school. It'll be an adventure, that's for certain.

And when I have blogger access again (I'm having my mom post this as the computer I am is lacking a crucial plug-in to get into blogger): my Kashgar entry.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Fractured Plans

Well, the travel gods strike again. I should have known not to try to do anything on Friday the 13th. No sooner do I find the right antibiotic to send Clarence the intestinal parasite packing (that's right, I named him) than another calamity occurs.

Yesterday, I went with my interpreter and her younger sister to a village 2.5 hours away called Laomudeng. It was a beautiful place with a horrible hellish road that led me to believe I might be suffering from whiplash even before we got there. We first went to a little village on the far side, called Bijiang, with a gorgeous view of the Nujiang Valley. Some people there told me there was another American, a doctor, in town-- would I like to meet him and give him a hug? Because of course all Americans hug each other upon meeting. I politely declined.

Upon our arrival in Laomudeng, I started off to go with said younger sister to her house, walking along a raised path with Chinese corn crops on one side and a steep drop-off into some people's yards on the other. All it took was a little trip on the uneven ground, and I stumbled and fell 4 or 5 feet onto some luckily placed metal shutters. If they hadn't been there I would have fallen more like 8 or 9 feet.

The first few minutes after my fall were really scary. I hurt all over and wasn't sure what had happened, what was wrong. I was really, really in the middle of nowhere and there were Lisu people I'd never met clustered around me asking me in thick accents where it hurt. One of them rubbed my back. Another one felt my head, although I didn't think I'd banged it. After awhile, the pain resolvd into just my foot-- I'd somehow managed to fall with all of my weight on it, and although the rest of my body was relaxing and warming with relief, my foot was throbbing like crazy and I wasn't sure I could move it. I sent Younger Sister to go get an icy dessert from her house to put on my foot, but I couldn't get up and found myself very dizzy. I lay on the couch of these complete strangers whose yard I'd abruptly fallen into for almost three hours wondering what was going to happen. Luckily, someone had the presence of mind to call the American doctor, who came and spoke beautiful beautiful English with me during this time of crisis. We determined that my foot wasn't seriously broken but was surely sprained or fractured, he got me in touch with a Canadian friend of his in Fugong, and made a sort of bandage thing out of athletic tape and a foot massage sock.

The ride back was torturous. Not only was the road just as bad, but every time we went over a bump I felt it in my foot. And then, to add insult to injury, they were doing "work" on the road (which quite honestly might have been easier to drive over if they had just left it as a freaking mountain flank instead of trying to put dirt on it and make it all 'civilized). Nevermind that it was 6:30 PM and there was a line of cars wanting to go down the mountain. We waited while the construction people worked for almost a full two hours. Infuriating, and so very China.

I went to the Fugong hospital this morning, where the X-ray man was out because it was Sunday and it didn't matter because the X-ray building was being renovated over the weekend (because people never need X-rays on weekends, of course. I hate the Chinese medicinal system.) The doctor who looked at me basically poked at my foot until it hurt just as much as it had at first and then told me what I had known before-- not broken, possibly fractured, get an X-ray on Monday. And then I spent the whole day in my hotel, sleeping and watching movies and doing a little work and feeling very thwarted and frustrated. I have 12 days left here and I had better not have to hobble through them, that's all I have to say.

At least the X-ray is only going to cost me $3.50. God bless the Chinese Yuan.
Bah humbug.

Dongbei ("The Northeast"), Part Two: Beijing

We were only in Xi'an for 1.5 days, so it was nice to "settle" somewhere for a bit before we all headed our separate ways. On the second day we took a hop-skip-and-a-jump plane ride to Beijing, and stayed there for 4.5 days. It was cool to get to know the city from a different and no-parents (for the first part, anyway) perspective. We did a lot of the touristy things that I'd already done again, but with a city like Beijing (similar to Xi'an), those things are so cool that you generally don't care about doing them more than once. In the end, the only thing I skipped was the Forbidden City/Temple of Heaven, because that place is freaking huge and I didn't feel like walking around in the 39 C heat (that's like... 110 F or something ridiculous) for 3 hours.

One of our first stops was, of course, the Great Wall. It wasn't my first time there, but we went to a different section of it this time, less touristy and differently shaped. (The section I went to with my parents in 2003 was all stairs, this one was some stairs and some curvy parts.) The coolest part of it was the toboggan track they put in along the side. John and I took the cable car up together, then he went off to do his crazy super-fast thing while I took my time exploring the towers and resting from the crazy heat, then tobogganed down the mountain at the end. When I got off, some Russian woman came storming up and started yelling at me, presumably because I was going too slow (one could control the speed of the toboggans.) I just looked at her and said, "I don't understand you." In retrospect, I should have started yelling back at her in Chinese-- that would have thrown her off but good.

The Great Wall

We also went to Tiananmen Square (really huge and expansive, as usual) and the Summer Palace, where Empress Cixi, the craziest and most ruthless ruler in possibly all of Chinese history, used to take her vacations. There's a big lake there where Cixi had an enormous marble boat made (it doesn't run, just sits in the water and weighs a huge amount) along with a really pretty vacation house and the world's longest hallway along the lake (so she'd never have to put her face in the sun.) Now the place is a complete tourist attraction, swarming with tour groups, people hawking Olympics 2008 t-shirts, and tacky stands where you can dress up in Imperial Garb (John took the bait, of course.) But it was a lovely place to be on a sweltering Beijing day.

The longest hallway in the world

John, channeling his inner Imperial Pimp

The Summer Palace as seen from the water, where we rented a paddle boat for an hour

When we weren't doing the history student thing, there was plenty of other Beijing things to do. We braved the famous Beijing traffic to eat at Lush, a favorite Western restaurant/bar of the several SIT kids who studied in Beijing Fall semester; explored the Beijing subway system (So clean! So precise!); went to the Silk Market (where they sell way more than silk, everything from jade to fake Fendi to scarves) to buy souvenirs and hone our bargaining skills. At the Silk Market, we made friends with a pearl seller who gave us all free water and discounts--Mike bought a necklace "for his future girlfriend." I thought that was both pretty smart and hilarious. I proved to be a terrible bargainer because I get guilty, but John made a reputation as a bargaining genius, saving something like Y2000 on a knockoff purse for his mom. There was also lots to do at the hotel, which was the nicest we stayed at all semester. We thought about going swimming until we found out it was a whopping Y60 to use to pool. But we did end up bowling in the basement twice-- the place had a real mini alley, I felt like I was back in Maine. The only indication of my location was the Chinese characters on the "high score" placards.

One night, the program took us out to a famous teahouse where pretty much all the political leaders that come to China go to experience Chinese culture. The evening features traditional tea snacks, tea (of course), and entertainment such as jugglers (one guy balanced a huge clay vat on his head), acrobats, Beijing Opera, traditional music, and shadow puppets. The shadow puppets were my favorite, the men doing them made all sorts of different faces with their hands and the faces lipsynced along to the unlikely musical choice of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" by Wham!. Oh Chinese culture...

Doing some ca-razy stuff with a teapot at the famous Beijing Laoshe teahouse

After a few days in Beijing, my parents arrived, fresh from their cruise on the Yangtze River. It was wonderful to see them and catch up, and they hit if off almost disturbingly well with my friends, especially John. They took Tania, Sophie, Mike, and John out to dinner one night, and then the same group plus Kailey out to lunch the next day. They made an excellent impression-- everyone thought they were super cool. They came with us to Panjiayuan, too, one of my favorite places in Beijing-- an amazing antique market full of hustle and bustle, cluttered stands filled with wrought-iron carved Tibetan Buddha daggers, calligraphy, Miao minority embroidery. We didn't get to spend as much time there as I would have liked, but I can always come back another time-- here's hoping.

On the last night the whole program got dressed up and went out to A Fan Ti, a Uighur theme restaurant in Beijing. Uighurs are a Chinese minority that live in Xinjiang, China (incidentally where we were heading the next day. It was a good cultural preview.) The meal included traditional Uighur pita bread, "chuanr" (basically shish kebabs), specially made vegetables, and pomegranate juice. It also featured a show, with women doing a traditional dance with bowls balanced on their heads, traditional Uighur music, and belly dancing. SIT students got special attention throughout the whole thing, mostly because we were the only white people there (I think.) Kailey got to dance on stage with a male belly dancer; Chris got picked out for another stunt; and (craziest of all) John, through a contest and a series of unexpected turns, ended up with a snake around his neck and a scantily clad woman belly-dancing her way around him while the whole crowd screamed. The night ended, rather appropriately, with the MCs encouraging the crowd to get on the tables and dance (a Uighur tradition.) I wish I could say that I didn't have the image of John dancing on the table with my mom and dad forever etched into my brain.

That night, everyone went out to a bar district called San Li Tunr. Tania, Mike, Sophie, John, and I went, too, but as soon as we get there we were kind of turned off by the whole thing-- basically drunk Westerners as far as the eye could see. "I didn't transfer away from UC Boulder for nothing," Tania said, and so we went to a nearby coffeeshop for fancy dessert and then went back to the hotel to do the same thing we had every night in Beijing-- hang out, be really silly, give and recieve massages, and listen to music. It was an appropriate ending to an amazing program-- a mundane but lovely night spent with friends. At 4:30 AM Tania and Sophie said goodbye and headed to the airport, and later that day John had a protracted goodbye with my parents. There may have been tears involved. And then it was the three of us, off to unknown parts, intrepid explorers always.

Nextime: Kashgar, the China you (and I) never knew about

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Dongbei ("The Northeast") part I: Xi'an

Following the 3.5 weeks I spent in Lanping, Liuku, and their environs, I hightailed it back to Kunming for a week of unwinding/marathon paper writing/eating lots of Western breakfast food (one of my favorite coffee shops, Salvadore's, sells a dynamite "American Breakfast" that actually tastes American for Y20, about $3.) Some of the guys in the program went to Tibet for the last week of ISP, which cost them a huge amount of money. I was really jealous of them (still am), but then they had to pull several consecutive all-nighters to get their papers done, not something I would have been keen to do. In the end, as suggested by the fake birth announcement I posted awhile ago, my paper (which was about the stories Nujiang people tell, the attitudes they have about those stories, and the factors that affect those attitudes) was a massive 36 pages long--the longest thing I've ever written. And I gotta say, it's pretty good. I got my grades back last week, in America, and apparently my teacher agrees (sly grin.) Well, where else but in your own travel blog can you indulge in blatant back-pattage/horn-tootage? So I say: good on me.
Moving on.

Anyway, besides writing we also indulged in DVD watching, scooter riding, and club/bar hopping(the only time I really went out in Kunming, it was actually a lot of fun, the clubs in Kunming are sort of hilariously garish with backup dancers and Karaoke and way to much in the way of lightshows. There was also, inexplicably, a clown walking around one of them.) We had a series of days where people gave 20-minute powerpoint presentations about their topics, which were alternately interesting and kill-me-now boring. Could have been planned better (do you really need to cram 7 hours of presentation into one day? Seems unneccessary...) On the last night, Justin had a huge 21st birthday party for him and two other of our tripmates at this cafe/bar called Halfway House, and everyone drank and schmoozed and danced and listened to terrible rap (Justin had brought this terrible white expat rapper to perform at his party, basically just for the entertainment value.) It was a good way to rap up our Kunming time...

...Because the next day we got up at 4:30 AM to take a 2.5 hour plane to Xi'an, almost smack in the middle of the country, south of Beijing by about an 11 hour train ride. Xi'an was the geographical center of China for a long time, when China was on a smaller scale, and it's been continuously inhabited for something like 11,000 years. It's a huge city, with a very different feel than Kunming, and much more polluted, very "Eastern China," but we saw some pretty sweet things there. The first afternoon, John, Tania, Sophie, Mike and I indulged in some MacDonald's (I had a small fry and it was AMAZING) and then explored the Muslim quarter, which is very atmospheric. We bought several presents in the souk (marketplace) and sampled some local cuisine, including a kind of nougat with raisins and nuts inside and a weird fried sweet thing rolled in sugar and nuts.

The market in the Muslim Quarter of Xi'an

The Xi'an Drum Tower, right outside the Muslim Quarter

After several hours of exploring we were hot and tired, so we went to Starbucks (hooray!) I'm not a huge fan of Starbucks generally, I like to frequent little local-owned places. But just walking into the lovely, airconditioned building was like walking into a little piece of America. Every Starbucks ever is decorated the same way, bless them. And so we spent a few hours drinking coolattas, fooling around, and enjoying ourselves.

Tania and Sophie at Starbucks, a little bit of America in the middle of Xi'an

Spotted just outside of Starbucks: Oh my God! It's Xue, in Xi'an! But wait, Xue is in the US this summer! It's Xue's evil twin!

The five of us started spending a lot of time together on this last trip. We explored, got meals, got bubble tea, watched movies, played stupid games (one of them involving sips of bizarre pineapple beer in a twist on a "Mulan" drinking game.) As we were walking back to our hotel from one jaunt out, I stopped at a magazine stand to buy some water. The man who helped me actually spoke the best, most fluent, and most accentless English I have encountered in a Chinese person here. He told us to call him "Mr. Johnston" and then pondered "that last name's possibly Scandanavian descent." We nodded mutely and I wondered when the last time was that I used the word "Scandanavian." He told us he's been studying English on his own for more than 20 years and practicing with the foreigners that come to his stand. I guess it goes to show that you never know where you'll find a scholar.

The next morning we got up impossibly early to drive to see the Terracotta Warriors. I'd been to see them once already with my parents, but they were worth going again, especially when someone else was paying my entry fee. The Terracotta Warriors are part of the 4-square-mile tomb of the first Emperor of the United China (as opposed to before, when the Dynasties just ruled little bits). He had a full-size to-scale army made for him out of clay, to ensure his continued rule in the afterlife. Every face of every archer, every horseman is different. They all have individually detailed hair. They were even painted, although you can't see the colors now. And that's just the part that's been dug up-- apparently a sizeable part of the Emperor's tomb has yet to be unearthed, including what sonar has identified as the Emperor's coffin resting in a pool of mercury (you heard me.) Pretty intense stuff.

The Teracotta Soldiers

Next time: Beijing adventures, SIT says goodbye

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Up the Valley-- Sidetrips from Liuku

I forgot to post this picture last time, and I like it and the girl is adorable, so apropos of nothing:

Lisu girl in traditional dress, Liuku

As mentioned in my last entry, I went on a few side-trips during my time in Liuku, into the countryside. Both times we went up the Nujiang Valley (there is no where to go but up-- Liuku is located at the bottom, the very mouth of the valley.) The first trip we took was to Luzhang, a small lower-to-middle class village perched way up in the mountains on the side of the river. We visited Xiong Li Mei's relatives (most people here refer to people who are not blood-related as "cousins" or "sisters" so it's hard to tell exactly how people are or aren't related) in their modest home. I got to hear about both Lisu and Pumi culture, as interestingly the husband and wife are a mixed marriage, apparently something that doesn't happen often. But I was told that their daughter was being raised Lisu (in this situation, children are allowed to choose their ethnic identity at a certain age) because Pumi culture was so far away in Lanping (7 hours by bus.)

At the slightest mention of my interest in minority culture, the mother in the family called her older relatives (she called them Auntie and Grandma, but again you never know) and her daughter, they brought over the traditional clothing they save for special occasions, and they gave me an impromptu Lisu song-and-dance performance in their living room. And then, out of the blue, the auntie decided to give me the embroidered and beaded bag she was wearing that she had made herself. Almost all Lisu people carry a bag of this kind or varation, with specific embroidery and colors, as a method of self-identification in a time when most of them don't wear traditional costumes. The old woman just took her cell phone out of the bag, unhooked it from her shoulder, and handed it to me. When I told her I could never take that from her, she just said "I can make another one." It's not the most beautiful thing in the world, because Lisu are so poor-- they can only afford cheap plastic beads. But I don't care. The whole thing was pretty wonderful.

The Lisu family I visited in Luzhang, in full Lisu regalia (of that region. Here in Fugong the headpieces look different) Also note the classic poster in the background.

While we were visiting Luzhang, walking the winding road as it meandered along incredibly verdant cliffs, it started raining. Hard. Very hard. As I wrote before, as we were driving home there were rocks, serious rocks, in the road that had fallen from the mountains above. It was clearly not a safe situation, and so I was kept from going up the valley to Fugong and Gongshan during my ISP. I was furious and frustrated at first, but I just spent longer researching in Liuku, and on the second to last day we took a real trip a full 2 hours up the valley to Chengang. Chengang is a small town in itself, but really it's just a base for a series of small and very poor Lisu villages between 15 minutes and an hour a way by foot. The weather was finally decent that day, and so the ride up the valley was positively gorgeous.

Scenes from the lower valley

(I am especially proud of this photo because it was taken out a minibus window)

When we got to Chengang, it was time for lunch so we found a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant and ate there. Xiong Li Mei did some hardcore social networking for me (I never would have had the guts), and got our server to agree to take us to his home village a 15 minute hike up the mountain. And so we went, past the singularly most disgusting communal bathroom I have ever seen (I won't go into detail, but I've been in China for 5 months now and it still holds that title. And that's saying something, which you'll know if you've ever used a Chinese public toilet.) We passed several small streams and rice paddies before arriving at a very small, very shabby traditional Lisu house.

The Lisu house I visited in Chengang

Traditional Lisu houses are two stories tall, with the bottom story reserved for livestock. They are made out of woven wood and reeds, mostly. The walls are more flimsy and have a criss-cross pattern, while the floor is woven like tiles, warp and woof. Unless the owner is particularly rich, the room inside doesn't have any more furniture than a few simple wooden stools and some blankets to sleep in. A san jiao (literally "three legs" because, well, it has three legs) or traditional stove, sits over a fire, and by that Lisu cook food, boil water, and keep warm.

Inside the house, with the nainai (grandma) who lives there

And her husband, holding their bibles, probably smuggled in from Myanmar

As you might guess from the above picture, the people living in this house are Christians who celebrate both Christmas and the Lisu New Year, Kuoshijie, which fall within a week of each other. They also offered me some alcoholic cornmash, the beginning of traditional Lisu whiskey (which I recently tried at a Lisu wedding I attended, more on that later, but WOW that is strong stuff), but as Christians they don't drink. This kind of fine-line between what's permitted because of culture and what's not permitted because of religion is what my thesis is turning out to be about. I find it fascinating.

After bidding the old couple goodbye, we rode the 2 hours back to Liuku and had a little goodbye gathering for me-- I was going back to Kunming the next night on a sleeper bus. It was lovely, we went out with the same motley combination of office workers, soldiers, and math teachers as before. We had hotpot, which involves an enormous boiling vat of oil/broth and a million different kinds of meats and vegetables, which you put in one at a time and let cook. Kind of like Chinese fondue. I also got to hear several different Lisu and Pumi stories that night-- a good place to leave off. (Well, except for that cell phone pickpocketing which would come the next day.)

My goodbye gathering

And, in case you were wondering:

The inside of a sleeper bus (the nice kind)

Next time: SIT says goodbye-- Adventures in Xi'an and Beijing