Saturday, May 30, 2009

We Have Friends In High Places!

Rick Reilly has spent the past several months of his life transforming into Lord Capulet. He has grown a beard, learned his lines, and even mastered dance steps of a variety of kinds.

And so it was that Desi, Julie, Z, and I had the chance to spend an evening taking in the Beijing Playhouse's production of Romeo and Juliet. Yes, Shakespeare, in the capital of China, in English, with Mandarin subtitles. What a night, all thanks to Judy, Elizabeth, Anna, and, especially, the Lord himself!


Rockin' At The Czech Embassy

Qian Jun is a professor in the English department at Peking University. He studies the Prague School. (No, I have no idea what that is, either!) Because of this research interest, Jun is acquainted with the Czech ambassador to China, and sometimes gets invited to events at the embassy.

The other night, the embassy hosted a kind of garden party, in celebration (I think!) of the Czech Republic holding the presidency of the European Union this year. Able to bring a few guests along, Jun invited me and one of the kids. That way, both he and his son, Andi, would have company at the event.

So Z and I headed across town, not really knowing what to expect. Turns out, it was a concert out on the back lawn, with a complete selection of food and drinks, from a whole roast lamb to tasty little desserts.

As for the music, it was not at all what we were expecting. Imagine the E Street band with central European characteristics. The singer and guitar player was dressed in a black t-shirt, black jeans, and black shoes. At one point, he even had his guitar slung over his back, just like you-know-who.

And what about those Czech characteristics? The other singer played not a guitar (sorry, Miami Steve!) but a violin. And there was a cello-like instrument in the mix, which added a kind of gypsy, folk aspect to the overarching rock sound. As a Hungarian, it was kind of like the Csardas meets Born to Run.

Two Americans, listening to Czech music, in Beijing...Not an ordinary kind of evening, to say the least!


Friday, May 29, 2009

Rice Terraces In The Sun

Yes, the sun finally did come out on our last day in Ping'An!


Not Knowing What Surrounded Us

While standing on an old stone bridge on the way from Zhongliu to Ping'An, in the rice paddies, I took these two pictures on two different days. We really were living in the clouds, and sometimes you could hardly see the next ten feet in front of you. This is a perfect example of how we hardly knew what surrounded us until our last day in Ping'An.


Building Dams

On one of our hikes at Ping'An, I noticed small waterfalls in many places. Most of these were surrounded with rocks and mud...The perfect ingredients for building dams!

On the first hike, I made around five or six dams, none of which stopped the water completely. On one of them, a big one that crossed the path, the water was nearly stopped. This one was bigger than the others, and had a snaking path down. I made three dams there. The first was small to slow the water, the second was the main one, and the third was small and a back up for the bigger one.

On our second hike, I made three dams and was a little more successful. My second dam completely stopped the water. The only problem? It flooded the path! I undid the dam and made a channel for it. Well...At least I was successful!


PS: I wonder if the workers are happy or mad at me...

Lunch With The Ladies

In an effort to maintain peace in the land (or at least to keep the waiguoren from dining elsewhere), compromise prevailed as the Yao women decided, in the end, that we would dine at the first woman's home, but that the other would do the cooking. (Nice job helping them get it together, Steve!)

And so we entered the village of Zhongliu...a beautiful community of rice paddies, mountain streams, and simple but attractive homes. While I had envisioned that a remote village of this type might be more like one shown in National Geographic with huts or homes made of mud bricks, this was certainly not the case. The houses were made of wood and had square footage comparable to western homes, albeit not as ornate or modernized.

The home we entered had three levels. The bottom floor was not enclosed and was more of a makeshift barn, with a pig sty and the "restroom facilities"...basically a concrete slab with a squat toilet. Up the steps was the living space...a wide open room with a table and chairs, a television (yes, even in these remote locations CCTV has a market), and perhaps the set-up that keeps you grounded in the fact that you are in a remote location...a fire burning right in the middle of the floor. Long branches were kept alight under a rack that could hold cauldrons or woks for cooking. The roof above this area was constructed differently to vent the smoke from the room.
The third level, which we did not see, was reported to have the bedrooms (which we were told we can rent next time for 20 kuai per person per night). The woman who owned the home explained that it wasn't as fancy as other homes in the village but that it was what she and her husband could afford. In my mind, while it lacks some modern conveniences, it fits beautifully within the setting.

After the quick tour, it was time for some cooking, Yao style. Using the previously mentioned fire, these women worked together to create a truly delicious brunch. Starting with string beans, some type of potatoes, and an egg dish that was loaded with green vegetables, the women prepared (and gabbed) for around a half hour. Completing the meal was sauteed eggplant, rice, and, perhaps the highlight, a dish made from flowers that the women had been gathering as we walked through the paddies. Needless to say we were stuffed for hours afterward.

When we were finished eating, the women each took their turn at trying to peddle merchandise. One of the women even went as far as to try and sell Steve some pink sunglasses (which we had seen on her daughter in a picture she had shown us earlier in the meal!). Silver bracelets, pashminas, and wall hangings all made an appearance as well. Seeing that we were not interested, they encouraged us to stay with them next time, took the 120 kuai we paid for brunch and sent us on our way.

Deciding to walk out with us, the Yao woman famous for her nose-blowing joke, made sure to secretly tell me that if we come back to Zhongliu, we should stay with her...not the other woman. Sorry, Steve, I guess business is business.


Standing In A River, Surrounded By Arguing Yao Women

That is precisely the situation we found ourselves in, after we had decided the next morning to hike all the way to Zhongliu, for a look around and a meal in a Yao family's house.

Not long after we set out from Ping'An, we ran into a group of Yao women heading to the village for a day of selling. One of the women, who we had encountered several times before, turned right around, so she could walk with us and cook for us once we had reached her home. So far, so good...

About an hour later, as we were closing in on Zhongliu, we came upon another group of women just getting started on their trek across the mountains. Desi, sensing danger much faster than me, slowed down her pace, so that I was the one who ran head on into the women, all by myself.

You see, this was the group that was led by the "snot blowing" Yao, the woman who had made an emphatic point about us not losing her cell phone number. Seeing us being escorted by another one of her townsfolk, she immediately questioned me as to why I hadn't called her.

She then turned to the woman who had been walking with us, and argued it was her who had the better claim to us, since we were carrying her cell phone number in our backpack.

Our escort, for her part, yelled right back. Now, they were speaking in dialect, so I could only guess as to what her retort might have been..."I've been walking with these waiguoren for an hour. They are coming to my house!"

When we reached the foot of the village, thew argument between the two groups was still raging. Seeking a momentary respite from the conflict, we retreated to the cool waters in the middle of a nearby stream, knowing the Yao would not follow us in (ah, the advantages of wearing Crocs!). As we helplessly stood there, a young couple hiked by, and made sure to take a picture of our moment of humiliation. (I can only imagine what they were thinking!)

Eventually, we could run from our troubles no longer, so I decided on a different tact. Wading out of the stream, I addressed the Yao women. It was one of my weirdest moments in China yet, as here I was, a guy who just started learning Chinese a few years ago, lecturing a group of minority women living up in these remote mountains about their need to get along better. It went something like this...

You are all Yao, all members of the same nationality. You all need to work together. We are not going to decide whose house to go to. You all have to decide that. If you can't figure this out, then we will go back to Ping'An or find someone else to cook for us.

I have no idea if these words helped, or if they were viewed as condescending. No matter. A decision was finally made, and off we went, for that long awaited meal in the home of a Yao family...


Never Make An Idle Promise To A Yao Woman

Several kilometers across the mountains from Ping'An lies the village of Zhongliu. We had heard that the hike is spectacular, with great rice terrace vistas, and that the place itself is quaint and beautiful. We didn't know if we would have enough time to make it there and back by sundown, but we thought we would have a go at it.

As we set out, we had hardly left Ping'An when we encountered a Yao woman on the path. The Yao, who call Zhongliu their home, are a different minority than the Zhuang who live in Ping'An. Yao women are distinctive both in their colorful clothes, as well as their hair, which they keep as long as Julie's, if not longer.

This Yao woman asked us if we were going to Zhongliu. "If you are going there, I will go with you, and you can come to my house, where I will cook you dinner." We (actually, I) told her that if we made the trek again the next day, we could perhaps do this. It was not the last time I made this kind of deal.

Much later in the hike, we came upon a Yao woman working in the rice fields. Seeing us coming along, she hurried down to the path, and asked us if we were going to Zhongliu. When we told her we didn't think we had enough time, she tried to convince us otherwise. Lucky for us, a couple of waiguoren and their Chinese guide walked up, and our Yao companion abanadoned us to follow the three of them into her village.

Turning around to get back to Ping'An before dark, we encountered several groups of Yao women. All of them were heading home after a day of hawking merchandise over in Ping'An, where there is a larger concentration of visitors. Several of these women gave us their cell phone numbers, and we (uh, I) promised to call them if we decided to go to Zhongliu the next day. As the numbers were all written down on tissues (the only paper we had in our packs), one Yao woman reminded us, over and over, not to blow our noses into this one particular tissue, lest we lose her number.

As funny a moment as that was in real time (everyone can understand the universal language of blowing snot!), it was an encounter that would come back to haunt us the next morning, when the time came for us to make good on all of our (my!) promises...


Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The View From "Seven Stars Around The Moon..."

...Is pretty spectacular...Even in the clouds!


Our First Translation Project

One morning, I was sitting in the downstairs area of the guest house where we were staying in Ping'An, waiting for the rest of the gang to come out so we could begin our day of hiking in the rice terraces.

Right across the way, there is a man who makes all kinds of products out of silver by hand...Bracelets, necklaces, rings...You name it. He had come by for a little while while we were eating dinner the night before with the Liao family. He had added a lively presence to the evening, with his booming voice and laughter, cigarette smoking, and rice alcohol drinking.

This morning, he had something more mentally challenging in mind. Knowing that we can get some things done in Chinese, he scribbled some characters down on a napkin. These characters describe the kind of work he does in his little shop.

His question? "Can you translate this into English for me, so that I can make a sign and hang it in my shop?"

I told him no problem, and this quickly became a joint family venture.

Before long, we knew what all of the keys elements were. There was 银, which is the character for "silver." Also present were 手 (hand) and other characters that emphasize the idea of "craftsmanship." And the character 真, which literally means "real," but we thought of as here referring to the genuine nature of the work and products.

With all of this in place, we quickly honed in on a rough set of possibilities...

Genuine Hand-Crafted Silver

Genuine Silver Hand Crafts

Genuine Silver Handicrafts

Do we let the word "genuine" modify the silver itself or the process by which the silver is turned into little treasures?

In the end, after a little arguing back and forth, we settled on Genuine Silver Handicrafts. Returning with this answer, we informed our merchant friend that this phrase would sound interesting and authentic to English-speaking passersby. (No Chinglish from the Balla family!)

Our feeling of satisfaction, of playing a small role in helping a local entrepreneur connect with travelers from around the world, was short-lived. The woman at the adjacent stall, apparently impressed with our effort, quickly came and brought us her business card. Our current task? Translate the whole thing, so she can print up an English version.

Wish us luck! We need it with this one!


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Free Range Chickens

Everywhere you go in Ping'An, you come across the village's famous free range chickens. On several occasions, we asked the Liao family to cook us up some tu ji, the local specialty dish. This request invariably led to a trip outside, and coming back in with a live chicken tucked snugly under the arm.

For some reason, the chicken always let out a single cluck as it was carried into the kitchen...


This One's For Glenn Mott

Hey brother, what kind of mushroom or fungus are we talking about here?


Rice Terraces Up Close

I'm not really good on "how things work," but these shots of the rice paddy walls and drainage system pretty much speak for themselves.


Rice Terraces In The Rain

Just like on the Li River, a setting of rain and fog can make for some pretty distinctive vistas out in the rice paddies. We were wet...And loving life!


"Hey Des...Maybe We Can Stay With A Minority Family In The Rice Terraces..."

"Yeah, right!" I though to myself, as Steve mentioned this in passing. I also thought, "Where are we going to find a minority family who wants to host us for a few nights?"

Aside from the Hans, China is home to over fifty different groups of minzu (nationalities). These peoples, while spread throughout China, do have members who congregate in certain regions, and live amongst themselves in distinct villages. In the surrounding area of Longsheng, there are a few minorities who call the Longji rice paddies their neighborhood. In Ping'An, and its neighboring village of Zhongliu, the Zhuang and Yao are the predominant groups. Each is easily distinguished, since the people, in particular the women, dress in their traditional clothing.

So as we pulled into Ping'An and entered the village, having no reservations or accommodations, we rolled and carried all of our luggage up the hillside on the stone path to what seemed to be the first lodging establishment. Faced with more steps, or a decision to check it out, the latter won out and we stepped in for a look.

This was our second best decision of the day (second only to deciding to head to Ping'An in the first place).

This guest house, which provided clean rooms at reasonable rates, was also home to a family of Zhuang. In essence, we did stay with a minority family!

And it was wonderful! This beautiful family included a young husband and wife and their adorable baby boy who are the operators of this lodge, the wife's mother and father who work in the fields and also dabble in the newfound tourism, her grandmother who makes and sells straw shoes outside the lodge, and her grandfather (at least we think it's her grandfather!) who also works in the paddies and transports merchandise up the mountain with the help of his donkey as there are no motorized vehicles in Ping'An...In fact, there are no roads at all in this village. A stone pathway is the road.

This family took care of all our needs, from making sure the room was acceptable to cooking our meals. While there were several rooms available, we had the place to ourselves. And so we had our own cook as well! When we were ready to eat, the wife and husband sprung into action. Based on our order, they would gather the ingredients, veggies from the garden out back, a free-range chicken (that's another story!), and while nai nai took care of the baby, they would cook up some of the best food yet we have had in China.

One night, we happened to be eating a little later than usual, so after the other family members returned from the fields and showered off, they all gathered in the dining area to eat dinner together. In an act of true hospitality, they asked us to join them at their table to share in their meal. Suddenly, it struck me that these nameless, faceless people who we had seen in pictures in our National Geographic guide to China (faceless because they were always at a distance and usually shaded by their hats), or who we had observed working in the paddies as we toured Ping'An, looked no different than any other person after a work day. Ready to sit and relax and eat with their family. These people has now jumped out of the book and we were there with them, hearing stories, discussing politics, and eating some of the rare treats you can't find on any Chinese restaurant's menu.

Upon our departure, we expressed our hope to see them again. Their smiles, willingness to help us with our plans, and overwhelming hospitality made this part of our journey a very personal one. As we not only experienced a place, we had the honor to experience meeting the people who have called this beautiful home for many generations.


A Room With A View

So what was the aim of the hawkers at the foot of Ping'An village? What was their strategy for parting you from your hard-earned cash?

These middle-aged women, for twenty kuai, will carry your luggage from the bus depot to wherever in the village you are staying. Their mode of transport? Bamboo baskets strapped onto their backs.

For our stubborn part, we opted to roll our bags up the paved hillside ourselves. This elicited two reactions. Among the villagers, it prompted several of them to follow us, waiting for that moment (which never came) when we would tire and give in to their pleadings. Among the Chinese tourists descending out of the village, it was audible wahs! These exclamations of amazement made us think that we must be performing some herculean task, in carting our own luggage up the path.

But there we were, like ten minutes later, at the first building in the village, no worse for wear. I stuck my head in and asked, you fangjian ma? "Do you have any rooms?" You, came the affirmative reply. Little did we know at that moment, that not only would we be getting a room located smack dab in the middle of the rice terraces (see the accompanying photos taken from our window). We would also be having, over the next three days, one of the more moving interpersonal experiences of our entire lives...


Gotta Love Bus Travel In China!

So how do you get from the limestone peaks of Yangshuo to the rice terraces of Ping'An, the other renowned area of natural beauty in the Guilin area? In our case, it went something like this...

Finding out that there is no direct bus linking the two spots, we booked tickets on the 6:45 am bus out of Yangshuo back to Guilin. This hour and a half journey was uneventful, except for the hawker who tried, ultimately unsuccessfully, to get us to take his bus instead, going so far as to load our luggage, ever so briefly, into his compartment.

Upon arriving in Guilin, we had to fight our way through the waiting throng of hawkers, who kept belting out one word to us..."Yangshuo!?" Feeling a bit mischievous, I kept replying, in Chinese, "You're going to Yangshuo!? You'll really love it there!" Now, I would not recommend this disrespectful (and effective) tact to anyone. It was just what I came up with at the moment, as I found myself crowded in.

At the ticket window, we discovered that the next bus to Longsheng, the town closest to the rice terraces, was leaving in precisely two minutes. Shijian gou bu guo? "Do we have enough time?" "If you hurry," came the no nonsense reply. We did hold the bus up for a minute or two, as we dashed off to the bathroom. Moments later, though, we were on our way.

This second bus ride took us away from the limestone peaks, up into mountains several thousand feet high. The funniest thing about traveling through this area is that if the ayi knows you are heading to Ping'An, the first village located in the rice terraces, she will flag down a bus right on the highway. There, cars whizzing by, you will dart across the street, luggage in tow, to a bus seemingly headed back in the opposite direction. As we eventually figured out, there is a strip where the two routes cross over each other, and you can save time not going all the way into Longsheng, only to have to retrace your steps for a bit. Now there's efficiency and service for you!

This last bus ride was the most amazing of them all. Up, up, up, we climbed, switchback after switchback, until we finally arrived at the foot of Ping'An village. There we found, predictably, yet more hawkers to fend off...


The Five Senses Of China

Part IV: Sight

While I've been planning this installment for a long time, having been to the "Grand Canyon of China" that is Guilin before, and knowing we would be making a return visit this year, I was not prepared for the "side trip" we would be making during the same journey. And so I am now divided on this sense. As a result, I am inclined to highlight two sights, and categorize them as "God-made" and "man-made."

The beauty of China is difficult to package into one poem, paragraph, or book. The diversity of this land mass, and the unique features of each place make it impossible to choose a favorite. Yet as the karst peaks emerged from the earth, so too does a clear front runner, which can possibly be equaled, but not easily surpassed. The limestone peaks of Guangxi Province, especially those found in the area of the Li River, are truly God's masterpiece.

Formed two hundred million years ago, when the oceans receded from this area, they have been the stuff of art and poetry for thousands of years. Each peak juts from the earth in its own distinct shape. The wear and tear on the sides of each reveal patterns that can resemble whatever the imagination can see. While some are revealed, others are on their way to being reclaimed by the earth...A wonderful example of primary succession. Collectively, though, they are the essence of the mystery and intrigue that is China.

Now, about that glitch in my plan...

Within the same province of Guangxi (but not nearly as publicized), and around a three-hour bus ride from Guilin, is the "road of heaven" known as the Longji terrace. Our destination, the village of Ping'An, is the home of the spectacular Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces. The mystery of this place is not how it was formed, but rather how could it be?

In effect, the work of men and women has transformed a series of mountains into a collection of terraced rice paddies, whose expanse is truly immense. This farmland is not merely a holdover from China's past, but a living example of history in progress, as men and women continue to work these fields with their own strength, along side their livestock. Many of the levels that we observed were in the preparation stages. Hand plows, pulled by horses and oxen, farmers beating the sides of each level to remove unwanted plant life, water (most likely from mountain streams and springs) being diverted through bamboo tubes from one level to another to irrigate the paddies that were ready to be flooded...The scope and sequence and human power necessary to maintain an operation of this magnitude are unfathomable to me. So too is the memory of so few workers present. Pairs and singles, working here and there...Their work backbreaking, yet observed as if a photo in a picture book...The epitome of peace.

While I left this place with more questions than I ever knew I had about this type of farming, one thing is unquestionable. As each person does his or her part, wonderful, beautiful things are accomplished. The transformation of this land mass is not only a feast for the eyes, but also a lesson for all.

I'll never look at a bowl of rice the same way again...


What Was...And Is...West Street

Near the Li River in the town of Yangshuo is a bustling series of (mostly) pedestrian streets, lined with shops, restaurants, and hostels for weary backpackers.

While in '04, I would have referred to this spot as "quaint," that description no longer holds, as what was once West Street has now expanded into a grid of streets loaded with tourists, natives, and even a few Chinese students looking for English speakers to practice with.

Even Maidanglao has found its way to West Street. Perhaps the McDonald's with the most beautiful "McBackdrop" in the world, there is no doubt that this town has capitalized on the "lore of tour."

Despite this new chaos, West Street is a really fun place to hang out. For us, some window shopping, people watching, and outdoor dining on an eclectic combination of pizza, cheese-stuffed chicken, Indonesian noodles, and spaghetti was a great way to relax after a "tough" day biking through the limestone peaks.


The Real Local Specialty

Thanks to ChinesePod's new video series, The Menu Stealer, we were able to have a go at the true local specialty of the Guilin region. What awaited us was much cheaper and way more delicious than the aforementioned pijiu yu.

Guilin mifen is essentially a bowl of rice noodles. These noodles, which can be found at literally hundreds if not thousands of xiao fandian in the region (just look for the characters 桂林米粉), cost no more than a couple of kuai per serving.

Once you receive your noodles, it's up to you what happens next. These little noodle joints will invariably have a huge pot of steaming soup, which you are free to ladle into your bowl. You will also encounter an array of cold condiments that can be added to the mix, everything from small peanuts and cucumbers to pickled vegetables and chili peppers.

Z, of course, went for the plain noodles, much to the chagrin of the laoban of the various storefronts we walked into. Bu hao chi! "It doesn't taste good that way!" Yes, we replied, he is rather tiaoshi (picky).

As we have discovered throughout the course of this year, roadside noodle stands are the real meeting places of laobaixing in today's China, the kinds of hangouts where people linger and talk about the matters of the day in their small communities. From Beijing to Xi'an to Taiyuan, we have noticed far more life going on where people bend their heads over steaming bowls of noodles than in the tea houses we (wrongly) expected to be so ubiquitous around the country. This has been a discovery, I can assure you, that all of us (even Z!) have found to be one of the true delights of everyday life in China.


Breaking Away

With beauty comes cost. And the "cost" associated with the limestone peaks of Yangshuo is the throngs of tourists who flock to see them and the tourism industry that has grown out of this wealth of humankind.

So what is one to do when he or she wants to experience the peace along with the beauty? Rent a bike and hit the road!

Venturing out of Yangshuo proper, we discovered the tranquil world of "outer" Yangshuo. The farming villages located here are living, working communities with natives who shape the land beneath the peaks into their food and wage.

When one particular village caught our eye, we decided to "off road" and hit the dirt path, to explore the fields that lie beneath the peaks. What we found was a quiet patchwork of lush green rice paddies, wading ducks, children playing (and trying to figure out what the waiguoren were up to), both basic but modernized homes, dirt brick barns, and a well atop a concrete slab, which we decided to make our resting place.

Catching a quick snack from our packed rations, we sat and quietly studied the fields and peaks. Away from the noise, the setting was much more appropriate for the accompanying scenery. Beauty beyond what pictures can show. For a while, we examined each individual peak (Julie even named one "Stretching Puppy" because of its shape). As the sunlight emerged from behind the heavy clouds, I was struck by the brilliance of all the green. More shades than I knew existed. I vowed to take over Crayola, and offer new crayon names, like "Rice Paddy Green" or "Limestone Peak White."

Hopping back on the bikes, and heading back to the main road, I think we all once again realized that taking the road less traveled definitely does make all the difference.


Waxing Or Waning?

Moon Hill sure is beautiful, no matter how you view it...

~Desi and Steve