River Town

Yangshuo, Guangxi Province, China
September 20 – 24

Little Li River Boy

Reflecting on the past month spent in China, I am preparing to put pen to paper but am suddenly compelled to give up my seat to a family of water buffalo passing by the river’s edge. Ryan and I jump up in unison, a squealing, lunging Oliver is hoisted to Ryan’s shoulders, and we stand rigid and silent, as if an convoy of the PLA were passing in our midst. Really we are just taken aback by the HUGENESS of these animals, their backs the color of the riverbank and sloping horns seemingly hewn out of the same limestone that forms the karst peaks that swell upwards from the countryside.

Our fifth day in this southern gateway to rural China is passed, other than the buffalo sighting, uneventfully. The locusts’ hum and occasional roosters crow is interrupted only by the rumbling of the tiny outboard engines propped tenuously off the ends of the local fishermen’s bamboo rafts. The sound is oddly reminiscent of the weed-wacker Ryan once used forever ago to edge our lawn in San Clemente. Ollie, naked other than the film of sand covering his lower half, alternates between splashing around in the Li River and chasing the stray chickens away from our little campsite. This is one of the few days of rest we’ve had during our trip thus far, and I am thoroughly enjoying it.

Earlier in the week we made the mistake of stopping for two nights in Guilin before moving on to Yangshuo and the countryside. The heat and humidity were at their most oppressive and the city seemed to cater at full tilt to the ubiquitous hordes of Chinese tourists. Night markets chockablock with jade bracelets and buffalo horn combs throbbed from dusk until the early morning hours. Ollie had come down with a cough from the recent temperature change (Shangri-La to Guilin), so we took the opportunity to hide out in our little room for the majority of 18 hours before we made our way south.

Yangshuo was easily reached by a bus from Guilin, and soon we found ourselves surrounded by craggy karst mountains and two winding, green rivers. The best way to travel in Yangshuo and its surrounds was on two wheels, and fortunately for us, the proprietor of our guesthouse lent us her daughter’s bicycle seat. The tiny thing was nothing more than a miniature wicker chair that we tethered to the back of Ryan’s bicycle basket. I had brought along a length of webbing and a clip just for this purpose, and before long, Ollie was secured directly behind Ryan’s butt. At a top cruising speed of five miles per hour, we took to the countryside, bouncing to and from little farms along cow paths that were etched around the perimeters of rice paddies. Ryan and Oliver surprised a mother cow and her calf and were chased for 25 yards before the attending farmer’s cries to come back were finally heeded. We must have ridden down muddy, four-foot wide paths for twelve miles or more that day; to and from the Dragon Bridge, and by dinnertime, the emerald hues of the rice paddies, lotus ponds and fields of sugarcane had become a technicolor blur.

Everyone smiling in this photo...a rare occurence!

The following day, we hiked to Moon Hill, a mountain whose fame was attributed to the unusual formation in the karst which resembles a round Chinese moon gate. Ollie spied rock climbers scaling the sheer cliff face and decided that going up might be something he’d like to try. Unfortunately for him, my belayer’s license had long since expired.

On our third day, we decided to buck our traditional routine of DIY, and we joined a tour that took us on a bamboo raft down the Yulong River. While entertaining, this was perhaps the low of our trip, as souvenir hawkers plied the river and took every opportunity to inform us that we should treat our raft operator to a beer, which they would happily provide us with. When we refused out of principle (we were going down river and over waterfalls on a bamboo raft, after all), he stopped us in mid-river, bought himself a bottle and took his twenty minute lunch break.

"You buy from me?"

Back to today and our lazy afternoon of the riverbank. Mist begins to fill in around the edge of the river and a fisherman stoops over his raft to reel a net slowly back into his boat. The sun dips behind Nine Horse Fresco Hill, now purple in the half-light, and for a second, the rarest of all things happens: time stops in China.

Posted from Guilin, Guangxi, China.

The Good Earth

Zhongdian, Yunnan Province, China

Farmers, Zhongdian

Without hesitating to shake the granite out of our shoes, we had hopped a local bus from Qiatou and the vistas of Tiger Leaping Gorge to press on north to the very brink of the Yunnan and the frontier it shared with the Tibetan plateau. Zhongdian, or “Shangri-La” as the local had dubiously renamed it for marketing purposes, was as close to Tibet as Team Rauch would get to China’s Wild West. With the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic only weeks away, the Party was reputed to be taking few chances with foreigners wandering into political hot zones. We acknowledged the greater risk for protests in areas like Tibet, which invariably would be followed with a severe government response. Such had already been the case in Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province, where Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, were at odds with the police over a series of hypodermic syringe stabbings. Given the timing, we opted to leave Lhasa for another visit.

At some point in during an uphill haul though mountain passes; perhaps during a forced stop when our bus overheated, we noticed the temperature begin to drop. At a certain elevation, the terraced corn rows and emerald patchwork of village farms gave way to valleys of scrub grass below a brilliant blue sky. The late afternoon sunlight, no longer filtered through the Yangtze’s mist, had a pitch-perfect clarity, and cast long shadows. And there, ambling along the side of the road, Oliver saw it first. A yak heralded our arrival; its long matted hair, humped withers, and clear-toned mountain bell at its throat.

Songzanlin Monastery

Zhongdian was similar to other Chinese cities of historical significance that we had visited. The new city’s urban sprawl surrounded the Old Town, which itself was a network of cobbled streets connecting the town square with the main temple. Strings of brightly colored prayer flags adorned the town and an enormous golden prayer wheel presided on a hill overlooking the city. To the North, the Songzanlin lamasery, home to 400 monks, was second in size only to Potala in Lhasa. All around the city, small Tibetan farmsteads cultivated millet and livestock (yak, cows, sheep, pigs and chickens). Beyond, the mountains shadowed their golden fields and gravel roads. We slurped on yak hot pot in the brisk evenings and cycled through fields where small children chased after us, shouting “hello!” and “today is Tuesday!” in English.

rooftops and prayer flags

Every night at 6PM sharp, turned out for dancing in the old town square to folk tunes played over a loud speaker, and after watching (and a little partaking) we would retire to our inn where the owner kept a traditional furnace burning in the center of the common room. We took the opportunity to break out Oliver’s long sleeves (no stains yet!), but he still managed to come away with a cold after a few days. On one particular evening, he took turns adopting several of the local grandmothers who came to watch the dancing in the evenings. He situated himself at the center of the dancers in the middle of the square, an ran shrieking in circles, nearly toppling a few who weren’t watching their step, only to barrel through the crowd to fall at the heavy, brightly embroidered skirts of the grandmothers. In this odd way, he charmed the locals, and in a matter of time, he had a cadre of local Tibetan kids sharing with him in the fun. At one point, one of his little pals took a break to squat in the middle of the square and relieve himself of some serious business. Ollie studied both him and the business for a second or two, laughed hysterically, and then nearly vaulted feet first into his pal’s deposit. The grandmothers were less excited to see him on that go around.

Tourists don’t know where they’ve been, travelers don’t know where they’re going. – Paul Theroux

Though geographically we were still well within a Chinese province, we might as well have been within the nearby and very arbitrary boundary of the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). Here, smiles were easy to come by, folks laughed a little more, and a well-placed “Tashi delek” (hello in Tibetan) got us a lot farther than “Nihao”. Perhaps in a few months when our trip finds us in Nepal, we’ll give Tibet another run, this time coming from the back door.

Posted from Deqen, Yunnan, China.

Tiger Leaping aka ‘Face Plant’ Gorge

 

Up In the Sky

 

Good evening from Yangshuo, Guangxi Province, China. This is actually Ryan as Emily just went across the street to get some snacks and to check out the activities at the massage parlors that line our street.  Yes, our hotel is situated within the “red light” district, but we are only paying 60 RMB per night, or roughly $9USD. Can’t complain. Yesterday when I asked the nice, scantly clothed lady on the leather couch how much for a foot massage, she told me to go pound sand.  I guess the fact that I had Ollie on my shoulders did not get her excited about me as a prospect. Speaking of Ollie, he is snoring like his PaPa (love you Dad) on the bed next to me.  His breathing and lullaby music are helping to drown out the cat calls from outside our window, and he is simply beat from riding on a Chinese bike seat for seven hours today.

As I sit here typing, I am filled with a sense of peace and serenity that is truly a gift from God as today, and this trip thus far, have been absolutely amazing.  We biked roughly 25 kilometers throughout the countryside and saw cozy little villages, colors that you can only dream of, water buffalo, farmers working in the fields, and to top it all off, a baby cow chased Ollie and me for a good 25 yards. There are many parts of China that have been overrun by the machine, but there are still a few places where you can actually hear yourself think and the beauty is second to none.

Before I go back in time to our experience in Yunnan Province hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge (the highlight and lowlight of our trip thus far), I have to circle back to my one and only post before we left. As you might remember, before leaving on this trip, I had a lot of fear for numerous reasons. I am extremely happy to say that the trip so far has surpassed my wildest dreams. Emily, besides being a wonderful wife and best friend, is an amazing travel partner; although her tendency to never admit when she is wrong has certainly carried over into our travels. Ollie has been relatively well behaved, but he has definitely had his moments.  He is literally treated like royalty here and it has only accentuated his terrible twos.

While everything has not gone perfectly, the time spent with Emy and Ollie has been second to none. It is not the sights that you see when you travel, but who you see them with that matters. For those of you that work day and night like I used to or who don’t put family first, I highly recommend that you re-connect with the people closest to you as you don’t have to be in a remote corner of China to tell your wife and kids, or anyone else for that matter, that you love them.

Back to Tiger Leaping Gorge, or Hutia Xia, as the locals call it. While the bus ride was not the most enjoyable, Tiger Leaping was well worth the pain. We took a five hour bus ride from Dali, another picturesque city, to Qiaotou, the jumping-off point. On the bus ride, two Chinese men behind us hocked loogies (a national pastime) for the entire trip and the driver chain smoked and passed cars on a two-lane mountain road as if he was Mario Andretti.  To add insult to injury, Oliver pooped his pants early in the ride, as is his tendency whenever we board a bus/plane/etc., and there were only so many times that we could convince him to stay in his seat or else the “monsters” were going to get him.

Upon arriving to Tiger Leaping Gorge (one of the deepest river gorges in the world), we located Jane’s GuestHouse, a place to store bags and get some lunch before we headed out.  Perhaps not too long ago, Jane was better known as Jim, and I have to admit, this was my first encounter with a Chinese transvestite on PRC soil.  Emy and I clearly did not know that we had nearly a 30 kilometer, 9,000 foot ascent ahead of us, so we each ordered greasy omelets for lunch.  While eating, we met two lovely folks, Toby and Collette (Cola as Ollie called her) who were our hiking buddies for the majority of the two days.  If you two happen to be reading our blog, we miss you and are sorry we did not get to say good bye in Shangri-La. While I am not terribly proud, it is worth noting that at Jane’s, Emily and I finally, and out of dire necessity, gave up our squat toilet-virginities,  as we had both religiously avoided doing a #2 in this manner up until that point.

Almost immediately, the scenery was breathtaking. The only thing I have seen that rivaled the beauty of Tiger Leaping was perhaps Lake Victoria/Louise up in Banff during our honeymoon.  For those that aren’t familiar with the Tiger Leaping Gorge, it is where the Yangzi River flows through the Haba Shan and Yulong Xueshan mountain ranges.  To the west is Myanmar and to the north are Tibet and the source of the MeKong.

Needless to say, the hike was extremely difficult as I had Ollie on my back who now weighs over 35 lbs, and Emy had a pretty heavy backpack on as well.  In fact, she became so dehydrated and light-headed in the searing heat of the mid-afternoon sun that we had to stop a number of times.  After the first two brutally hot hours, we stopped at a small Naxi family’s home, Emily re-hydrated and we were ready to go, although I still had no idea that the next four hours would be even more grueling than the first two.  The 28 Bends, as this part of the hike was called, consisted of what felt more like thirty narrow, granite- strewn, tree-root-snarled, near-vertical hairpin turns along a path that could barely accommodate one person at a time.   By the time we made the Tea Horse, another lovely Naxi guest house in the mountains, we were tired and could barely put one foot in front of the other, but we both knew we had just seen natural beauty that is unparalleled.  It saddens me to say the Chinese government is contemplating building a major dam for hydro-power right within the Gorge, so it is unlikely that it will be around in the next couple of years. 

While getting out of bed the second morning was not easy, Emy, Ollie and I said goodbye to our wonderful Naxi-mama host and hit the trail again at roughly ten in the morning. Little did we know that thirty minutes into the second day I would trip and fall flat on my face.  Luckily, Ollie came away with only one minor scratch, but I was not that fortunate. Blood gushed from where my head had connected with the sharp granite and I had tweaked my ankle pretty badly. While I did not necessarily think so at the time, I came away from the fall a very lucky person; if I had tumbled off the cliff, it would have been game over for me and Ollie. Thankfully, we met a handful of other hikers about 45 minutes down the road who gave me a bandage and helped patch me up.

Good to know

 

After the fall, we still had a four hour hike that traversed beautiful waterfalls and made a dramatic descent to the bottom of the Gorge. Emy was quite the sport as she carried Ollie after my fall and navigated the terrain like a regular pro, unlike her sad husband who should clearly wear a helmet at all times. After finishing the hike and being the brain surgeons that we are, Emily and I decided to walk another thirty minutes to the lovely town of Walnut Garden.  As the sun was going down, we made our next critical error.  Rather than retiring to our rooms to clean up and collapse on our beds as most would do after hiking the Gorge, we instead turned off the trail and hiked another two hours through corn, squash, and pumpkin fields in an effort to get down to the water’s edge.  Along the way, we swatted away spiders the size of my hand (the entire hike Ollie kept screaming “huge spiders going to get you!”). Unfortunately, we never made it as it was getting dark and we soon lost the trail.

The next day we had to get back to the beginning of the Gorge in order to catch a bus onward to Shangri-La.  The taxi ride down was even scarier than the hike as there was no guard rail and there were rocks all over the road which clearly indicated recent landslides. On one occasion, a truck coming from the opposite direction passed by us with little more than a foot from the edge of the cliff. While again I am not proud, I was petrified and needed to relieve myself once we made it back to Jane’s.

The hike and fall through Tiger Leaping Gorge was a memorable experience that I will hold onto (like Emy and Ollie) for many years to come.

Posted from Kunming, Yunnan, China.

True Grit

Shanghai, China

Jin Mao Building from an 86th story bird's-eye-view

Every morning I woke up in Shanghai, I could taste the city between my teeth.  Every night, clouds of dust and pulverized concrete would rise all the way to our room on the ninth floor of the Broadway Mansions Hotel, and by one in the afternoon, Ryan was rubbing his eyes and we were brushing the grit out of Ollie’s hair.  More so than any other city we visited in China, Shanghai was re-inventing, and often times, one-upping itself on every block.  The towering sentinels of Pudong’s new city (the Pearl TV Tower, the Jin Miao Building, the World Financial) would soon find themselves in the shadow of the 600 meter  Shanghai Tower, whose concrete  foundation was only just being poured.  And we were denied the quintessential Shanghai experience: a stroll along the Bund.  Across the river, the historic strip of early 20th century Art Deco buildings was inaccessible, as the riverfront promenade was under construction and blockaded by 20 foot walls. I kept thinking back to the half-finished and empty lots of foreclosed businesses and homes in the United States.  In San Clemente, contractors and construction workers complained of slow business, people’s reluctance to build and the general malaise of the economy.  Here in Shanghai, and in China all around, massive amounts of government dollars were earmarked for construction, and a new city was growing before our eyes.

Shanghai’s version of the” big dig” was fueled by its ambitions in front of the upcoming World Expo, taking place in October 2010.  The event was on the tip of every Shanghaier’s tongue, and several times we were met with quizzical looks when we explained that we were not planning to be present in the city at that time.  It was indeed an important moment in Chinese history.  Combined with the approach of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic (October 2009), the Expo only added to the Olympic-like fervor within the big cities.  

Yuyuan Bazaar

The Bund Sightseeing Tunnel and Antarctic Expedition Museum: This creepy, hallucinogenic experience took us under the Huangpu River from the Bund to Pudong via a glowing, pulsating, chanting tunnel ride.  We then plodded through a very random exhibit where badly taxidermied animals and indistinguishable creatures pickled in formaldehyde were on display.   Next time, we will just take a taxi over the bridge.

Pit-stop at the Park Hyatt, Pudong.  The attendants were asking 150 quai to go up 494M (101st floor) in the towering World Financial building, so we opted instead for the 86th floor where we took in the free view and the obligatory 100 quai bottle of Perrier. Ollie capped the experience by plunging face first into their dessert cart, for which we were rewarded with a complimentary plate of tea cookies.

Yuyuan Old Town Baazar. Apart from the 23rd century pace that is most of Shanghai, there is an older part of the city that actually anchors it to the rest of China.  Here we encountered the hordes of Chinese tourists who were aghast that we would not be attending the Expo, but would still very much like their photo-op with Oliver. I waited patiently in line for Shanghai’s famous NanXiang soup dumplings, and nearly ripped some woman’s face off when she tried to butt in front of me.  I had less luck at the Food Bazaar, where the dishes on display looked a great deal better than they tasted.  I had a fleeting urge to sample chicken feet in brown sauce, which I was able to overcome. 

Hunting for Diapers in the French Concession.  First of all, Chinese kids seldom wear diapers.  Their mothers employ the ass-flap method of potty training, which basically enables their children to bend over and drop a load on the sidewalk when and wherever the mood strikes them.  Second of all, the Chinese kids who DO wear diapers all have tiny butts.  Ryan and I canvassed the entire French Concession district for lard-butt size, and finally lucked out at an underground grocery store that seemed to cater to foreigners and their big-bootied children.

Posted from Shanghai, Shanghai, China.

Almost Famous

Beijing
August 26-31

Sunday afternoon in Beihai Park

Passing through the infrared body temperature sensors at the airport, I glanced back at Ryan with an enormous, loopy grin. The State Department emails I had been receiving for weeks that warned of potential quarantine in frightening Chinese sick houses, families separated, children shown no mercy; had melted away. We were in China, and moreover, we were in the center of the Chinese universe: Beijing.

The day had begun auspiciously enough. After a series of miscalculations that had led to too late of a start out of Osaka, we made our international flight by minutes. The three of us, hot and stinking more powerfully than a high school track team, collapsed in our seats and counted our blessings that we had the foresight to arrange for a taxi to meet us at baggage upon our arrival in China.

Beginning with our ride home, Beijing presented itself as a city of enormous contrast. Here the vestiges of thousand-year old Chinese dynasties shared real estate with Mao’s legacy. Inside the hutongs (narrow alley ways that were constantly plied by bicycles and moto-rickshaws) numerous southern-facing (good feng-shui) courtyard homes that were several hundred years old brushed elbows with shopping malls and Bank of China branches. In the past 30 years, absolutely everything had been retrofitted to accommodate the country’s opening and move toward free market economics.

We musn't pinch our fingers in the prayer wheels...

We spent our first day walking from our courtyard to the (in)famous Tiananmen Square. Xidan Beidajie began a small tree-lined street that was dotted left and right with hutong and dumpling houses. But approaching the Square, it haphazardly gave way to a massive shopping complex, replete with aerial catwalks, escalators, Sephoras and H&Ms. Oceans of young Beijingers poured out of the shopping mall high rises, flashing knock-off Ray Ban’s and Christina Aguilera tee shirts. The buildings could have either been 30 years or thrown up yesterday. The cheap construction materials, tacky facades and countless discount bridal boutiques conjured images of Flatbush Avenue or downtown Santa Ana.

As the Chairman’s face came into view lording over the Gates of Heavenly Peace, a small child tottered up to Oliver in his stroller. Perhaps he was a Beijinger out for a stroll with his parents, but more likely he was from an outlying province and had made the pilgrimage to the capital for the first time with his parents. As he babbled nonsensically back and forth with our son, a crowd of passersby gathered around us, with Ollie at the epicenter. Cameras flashed, and person after person stooped to have their picture taken with our son. Someone thrust a small Chinese flag in Ollie’s hands and the crowd roared with delight. Older women wanted to pick him up and have their photo op taken cheek to cheek. Middle aged men wanted to be slapped five. Young women with their babies clustered around and, one after another, they pushed their own toddlers forward to stand next to Oliver. Most of the children stood a good head and shoulders shorter than Ollie, and they screamed in terror when he stooped down to good-naturedly shout “NIIIIIHAO!” in their faces.

This scenario played out identically nearly everywhere we went in Beijing. At the Lama Temple, there was a crowd of 50 or more. We clung to the outskirts of the Summer Palace, visiting the furthest outlying temples in an effort to hide from the hordes stamping around Lake Kunming. In Beihai Park, we were quick to board a battery-powered boat where we enjoyed our Sunday afternoon peacefully from the middle of the lake. And in the Forbidden City, a kind young woman from Guangdong explained to me in her best English that he was “so lovely” with his “gold hair and blue eyes”. Throughout it all, Ryan and I were given less than a second of airtime, and we resolved ourselves to patiently mind our places in Oliver’s long shadow.

Footsteps into the Forbidden City

Here are a few more highlights from our memorable week in Beijing:

-Ollie dropping a deuce in his pants five minutes into a three hour bus ride on the way home from scaling the Great Wall (the entire bus stank like a Chinese squat toilet).
Cooking class with Candice Lee!!! One of my best friend’s from college younger sister is teaching a wonderful English-speaking Chinese cooking class. It was here that I discovered my love for Sichuan pepper in broad bean paste.
-Restraining Oliver throughout an entire Chinese acrobat performance. As he was shouting and doing his best to squirm his way out of my grip, I had visions of dozens of whirling plates crashing to the ground.
-Enduring an eleven-hour overnight train ride from Beijing to Shanghai and attempting to sleep between Oliver, who flopped around like a mackerel, and a heavy-set Chinese gentleman who could have blown the roof off the train with his snoring.
-Scraping dark brown boogers out of our nose every night and knowing that the air quality and sands blown down from the Gobi were taking their toll. Time to get moving!

Posted from Beijing, Beijing, China.