Saturday, July 31, 2010

Changbaishan Hot Springs: The Girls

While staying on Changbaishan, at the Tianshang Hotel, we were informed that guests are entitled to bath in the local hot springs pools. After dinner and an evening walk, we got together our bathing suits and headed downstairs, where we expected to see the same setup as the Berkeley Springs and Xi'an mountain springs baths. In both of those locations, the four of us were able to have a room to ourselves with a tub full of hot water.

Our first signal that this was not going to be the same was the two separate doors at the bottom of the stairs, one label nan (men) and the other nv (women). Still willing to check it out, we all turned in our shoes in exchange for locker keys and entered the appropriate doors.

Well, if you are expecting a story, you won't be disappointed, because Mommy and I were greeted with the sight of a bunch of naked women in the shower and bathing room. It was hard to tell how many were there because the walls were covered with mirrors. Mommy and I ran right for the locker room. We debated what to do and laughed about the unexpected dilemma we found ourselves in. We were not prepared to join the nude swimmers, but we did not want to just walk right back out. We chose to put our bathing suits on and see if we could wait the bathers out.

After pacing around for awhile and trying to turn the treadmill on (unsuccessfully), we decided it was time to make a move. While wearing our bathing suits, we walked into a room with three pools and shower heads all over the place. Immediately, all of the women looked up and we pretended to shower off our legs. One woman got out of the pool to leave, but she must have told on us, because the attendant quickly walked in and informed us that we should take our clothes off because it was a woman's bath and no men would come in.

As soon as she left, we made our way to the bathroom for a "secret meeting." Deciding that we would rather "lose face" than swim with a bunch of naked ladies, we got our things from the locker room and traded in the keys for our shoes. The man at the desk commented on how fast we were, and Mommy and I motioned to explain that the water was really hot. He told us that the boys had not come out yet, but we did not want to wait around in case any of the women came out. Instead, we picked up a few overpriced drinks and headed up to the room to await the no-doubt fascinating tale of the events behind the nan door.


Pure Ecological Beauty

One of Changbaishan's true ecological marvels is that of the pubu (waterfall) that adorns the side of the mountain. Provided with the water spray necessary to encourage succession, pioneer species like grasses and wildflowers cover the grounds, therefore setting the stage for larger seral communities like shrubs and wispy trees. The network of roots that has begun to hold the soil in place and the addition of necromass has started the process that will eventually lead to this ecosystem becoming a a few thousand years.

Certainly an example of succession at its finest.


It Really IsDifficult To Get To Changbaishan

Usually, my posts about our travels around China serve to reveal humiliating details about how we turn simple excursions into misadventures, due to our lackings in Chinese language, culture, and transportation. Today, there will indeed be a lot of that, but the deeper story here is that we actually were trying to make it to a very remote location, a place that is taxing to get to even for fluent Mandarins.

I'll begin with the debacle...

I read somewhere that there are regular buses that go from Yanji (the town that is our home base for exploring Yanbian) to the Changbaishan area. Changbaishan, I should say, is the tallest peak in all of northeastern China and one of the most pristine, with a crater lake at the top and waterfalls and forests dotting its slopes.

The first moral of the story is not to believe everything you read in tour guides. Leaving our hotel, we wandered over to the Yanji train station (which is where long-distance buses come and go from). We spied a bus with the following characters displayed in the front window...白山. The characters say "Baishan" and they are very close to "Changbaishan." (Just lacking the first syllable.)

We quickly jumped on board, only to find out that there were no more seats left. Since there was no way that we wanted to stand for a several hour bus ride (even though we've done the same thing on trains), we just as quickly jumped off.

Seeing no other buses that seemed to be going our way, we wandered into the room where you buy bus tickets. Now that might seem to be a strange order of events, to get on a bus first and then go to where tickets are sold. But, in reality, that's the way things work here, as every bus has an ayi, a middle-aged woman who goes and buys tickets for passengers on board.

Anyways, upon entering the station, I asked where we could find a bus heading to Changbaishan. "There are no buses to Changbaishan here," came the reply. Wandering around confused, I stumbled upon a map of the area and, much to my surprise, discovered that Baishan is actually the name of a town that isn't anywhere close to Changbaishan. Good thing we got off that bus, or else we would have been in for an eight-hour bus ride in the wrong direction!

At this point, feeling a bit frustrated and stupid, we decided to walk back to the hotel and see if we could elicit some help from the folks at the front desk. As always, it was sharp-eyed Desi who then saved the day. Entering the hotel lobby, Desi noticed the Chinese characters for Changbaishan (长白山) on the wall and quickly discovered that behind the hotel's gift shop was (surprise, surprise!) a small travel agency. (See the accompanying photo...Good eye, Desi!).

Now, of course, we don't like dealing with agents, but we figured that we didn't have much choice at the moment. So we sat down and negotiated out a two-day itinerary. The agency would provide us with a driver to and from Changbaishan. The agency would also book a room for us on the mountain. Beyond that, we would be on our own. Not a bad compromise.

So it was into a comfy mini-van (yes, mini-van!) that we jumped a few minutes later. (Isn't it amazing how there was a man with a car who was able to show up at the hotel in a matter of minutes, ready for duty?) And, yes, Changbaishan was not an easy place to get to, as it wasn't until nearly four hours later that we finally arrived. (More on the drive itself later...)

And what was one of the first places we passed by in our hired car as we pulled away from the hotel? Of course, it was a different long-distance bus station, one with all kinds of big signs advertising routes to Changbaishan...


Thursday, July 29, 2010


I will describe in this post the way we spent the last twenty-four hours...

At 12am, July 29, 2010, the four of us head to bed after a day of shopping and working in Beijing. We sleep for five hours, after which we wake up, shower, and get ready to head out. Five minutes later, we were in a cab and on our way to the airport.

At the airport, we check in and sit in the waiting area for our flight. Ten minutes after that, we are sitting on a plane, half asleep. Two hours later, we land in Yanji, and five minutes later we are in a cab. Ten minutes after that, we are sitting in the lobby of our hotel, waiting while they finish cleaning our room.

After checking in, we walk to the Yanji train station and get on a bus, twenty minutes after leaving our hotel. After an hour and a half, we switch to a car for a one hour drive out to the border of China, Russia, and North Korea. We are at the border for an hour and then our driver takes us the one hour drive back to Hunchun.

We then sat down for an hour and a half dinner (Russian food). After that, we board a bus for a drive back to Yanji. Back in our hotel, we spend a hour writing posts, watching some TV, and then go to bed.

Now that my listing of the day's travels in done, I can get to the point.

Even though it sounds like an exhausting schedule, I calculated the hours and came up with these results...We spent sixteen out of twenty-four hours either sitting, sleeping, or resting. It was quite a crazy day. I don't think I've ever rested for that long!


An Unexpected Combo

I never knew that China, Russia, and North Korea all share a border, so I definitely did not expect to see a sign for a toy store written in three languages...and none of them were English! Well, in a small town called Hunchun, filled with people of three different ethnicities, four American Beijingers are bound to be surprised!


A Little Nervous, A Lot Excited

And so the time came to add a little intrigue to our journey...

Considering how many places we could go, when we finally decided to leave Beijing for a few days, I had two criteria.

(1) While I love all the history of China, I needed a break from imperial architecture (and temples, in particular!).

(2) While I love spending time in Beijing, and accept that summer can be soupy, I longed for a place to breath the free air.

Add to my requests that of Steve and the kids that we go somewhere new, and Yanji became the place of choice.

Nestled between layers and layers of beautiful green mountains in northeast China, Yanji is a stepping stone to a few extraordinary sites, one of which raised a few hairs on the back of my neck. Never quite satisfied with the norms of touring, we decided to head to a very unusual border...A place where three truly remote countries bump against one another, albeit not without watch towers and barbed wire fencing...China, Russia, and North Korea.

Fangchuan is a really unique, pristine area where all three countries and the Sea of Japan can be viewed simultaneously. I have to admit that I was a bit shaky as we set out on a plane to a long-distance bus to a taxi to reach this out-of-the-way destination. It was certainly strange knowing that to venture into North Korea, while perfectly fine for our Chinese counterparts, would be illegal for us as Americans. We're not used to that paradox! Also strange to me was my lack of concern about the Russian border. Perhaps I would have felt a bit different had this trip been in the 70s or 80s, when I recall a different feeling I possessed toward that country.

In any case, my nervousness was quelled by the obvious demarcations on all sides and therefore quickly turned to fascination with thoughts of the peoples who dwell on the other sides of those fences. I was humbled by the realization that I was standing in a place where so few Americans have ever and will ever stand, peering at a land so closed off to the outside world.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Heading To North Korea

Yanbian is an area of China's northeast that borders both Russia and North Korea (with views of Japan on clear days). It also boasts of some of China's most beautiful scenery, including a pristine mountain with a crater lake at the top. We are heading out to spend a few days up there, hopefully eating some good Korean food and getting away from the hordes of domestic tourists who seem to be filling up every temple, park, and historical site in China proper.

Don't worry...We have every intention of keeping North Korea at arm's length. We'll just peek in from the outside...


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Kind Of Random Sequence Of Encounters

One day last week, Li Ayi, our wonderful landlady, sent me a text message, asking me if the kids would be interested in going to an international martial arts competition on Saturday. Now, this festival is not something we would have decided to attend on our own (let alone even known about), but our general decision rule in China is to follow wherever the road leads us. So, naturally, I replied that the kids would be really happy to go along (which they were, by the way).

Now, here is the part of the story where my "work in progress" Chinese may have handicapped my understanding of some pretty important details. Li Ayi indicated that she would be happy to treat the kids to this outing. I took her words to mean that she herself would be taking the kids to the competition. It was only when Li Ayi started telling me how the kids could get from our house to the stadium (i.e., bus and subway) that it sunk in that the Julie and Z would be on their own that day. My initial instinct was to tell Li Ayi that Desi and I would accompany the kids to the stadium and then hang around in the surrounding neighborhood. This parental admission ended up further muddying the cultural waters, as I was to later find out.

The next day, Li Ayi informed me that a woman by the name of Fu Laoshi (Teacher Fu) was in possession of two tickets for the martial arts competition. I should head up to Nongda (an agricultural university) to meet Fu Laoshi and pick up the tickets. Now, exactly what the relationship between Li Ayi and Fu Laoshi is, I don't have any idea. Nor do I have any sense of why it was that Fu Laoshi was holding the tickets. No matter. I jumped on the bus after work that day and headed out to Nongda, which actually is relatively close to where we lived last year.

Arriving at Nongda's west gate, I called Fu Laoshi and informed her that I was waiting to meet her and pick up the tickets. A few minutes later, out pedaled a woman on a bicycle and I had the tickets in hand.

Now, taking advantage of my location near our old neighborhood, Desi, the kids, and I arranged to meet for dinner in one of our favorite haunts. As the three of them were still haggling in the markets when I arrived in Saoziying, I decided to head over to Pang Shifu, drink some tea, and work on my laptop while waiting.

Walking through the plastic flaps, my loud, English voice startled and woke up two guys who were sleeping on chairs that they had lined up. The lights were off and there were no customers. Hui Min's mother brought me over some tea, and there I was, the unusual sight of a waiguoren sitting alone in an alleyway restaurant, working on a research project.

When the gang arrived, we enjoyed a long dinner, sitting outside at the mala tang place. And so it was that it was kind of late by the time we jumped on the bus to head home. Sitting on the 106, my phone suddenly rang. It was Li Ayi.

Have you picked up the other two tickets?

Other two tickets?

Yes, I left them with the wuye
[property management office].

No, I haven't returned home yet.

I think the wuye may be closed for the evening. You'll have to pick them up in the morning before you head out to the competition.

So there it was. The unintended outcome of my off-the-cuff reaction that Desi and I would not allow Julie and Z to spend the day on their own. Li Ayi, in her generosity, had gone ahead and provided us with four tickets, so that the family could all go together.

An unusual (from my perspective) process. Tickets left in unexpected places, at unexpected times. But, underlying it all, a kind and giving spirit...


"It's A Closet Day"

These were the words I heard Z exclaim as we entered our most reliable DVD store here in Beijing. What do closets and DVDs have in common? Well, for our long-time blog readers, you may already know. This is the sequel to "My Jack Bauer Moment."

As usual, Z, Mommy, and I casually walked into the yellow room full of shelves for DVDs in plastic packaging. However, upon closer examination, there were only box sets of TV shows and rows of CDs to be found. At this point, Z uttered those famous words and proceeded to the back of the store. He knew what to do!

Rather than giving up, we walked down a back hallway that we had entered only once before. We made our way through the twists and turns with Z as our lead, passing a few cleaning ladies and a woman exiting the ladies room, until we arrived at a hall full of ATM machines. There was a small convenience store with a closed closet door next to it.

Now, while Z and I were both pretty sure that this was the place, we didn't want to open the door. So Z lightly pushed it open and peeked in before jumping back and closing it slowly behind him.

"That's not it," he said. "All I see are crates."

My mind immediately flashed back in my photographic memory to a smoky room full of crates of DVDs. Without thinking, and to Mommy's amazement, I pushed right in...To find my mental image confirmed.

As you might guess, we are completely restocked on DVDs, including a copy of the new movie Knight and Day, which will most likely be interrupted with heads entering and exiting the theater for soda and popcorn!


Just Wondering

When your kids were little, did you ever spell in front of them to keep them from knowing you-know-what or you-know-where?

I'm thinking that this is a convenience that Chinese parents just don't share with their American counterparts.


Monday, July 26, 2010

Family Fish

Several days ago, I decided to purchase and item from our downstairs market. The item...a fish!

For a fish, a bowl, and a huge bag of food, I paid 20 kuai, about three dollars.

Apparently, the quality fit the prices, as "Killer," the new member of our family, died that night at 11:20 pm, while we were watching a movie. The next day we flushed the poor fish down the toilet with a heavy burden in our hearts.

Later that day, Julie and I stopped in the market and decided to buy another fish. Two, actually. We purchased a bigger bowl, the two fish, a fake plant, and were given some free rocks by the stall owner. These items also came with a "spoon" (a net). This "spoon" gave Julie and I quite a laugh afterward.

Since we had bought fish from the man before, we knew the price. However, the man's boss was there, so there were some things that changed...

How much did I sell the fish to you for yesterday?

Eight kuai.

Oh...Which bowl do you want?

That one.

That one's twenty kuai.
[Pause...] Excuse me, my boss bought that bowl for twenty-five kuai.


So, two fish and the bowl is thirty-six kuai.

Plus this small tree.

Forty kuai.

That's a little expensive.

Fine, my boss will also gift you a spoon.

Can we add in some rocks?

[Boss interrupts] Did you give them the spoon?


Those are two kuai each, but I can gift you these rocks.

[Boss interrupts again] Did you give them the spoon?


So, for all of this, forty kuai? You can't go any cheaper?

[Boss interrupts a third time] Did you give them the spoon?


Alright...Forty kuai is good.

The two fish are great additions to the family. The only question is what will we do with them when we leave?


Like Living Above Target

A few years ago, when a new Target was being built in Rockville (with a condo complex above it), I joked with Steve and the kids about how cool it would be to live there. Take a day when we're running a bit low on toilet paper.

Hey Z! Can you run downstairs and grab a six-pack of Charmin?

I imagined this as a household commonality.

Well now we are having exactly that experience...Chinese style. Living in a Beijing high-rise that sits atop a four-floor market has been a lot of fun...and very convenient. While not a Target, many of the same products are available.

So the other day, when we were running a little low on TP, it was Z to the rescue.

Hey Z! Can you run downstairs and see if you can bargain for some Vinda? [The Chinese equivalent of upscale toilet paper.]

Twenty kuai for a ten-pack.

Not bad, Z. Not bad at all...


The Writing On The Wall

As is common the world over, Chinese governments at all levels are fond of coming up with and disseminating propaganda and patriotic slogans. This sign, which we came across in the countryside outside of Beijing (in an area know as Shijingshan), simply states...

Love Your Country, Love Beijing, Love Shijingshan


As Seen On A Sign At Fahai Temple

So what exactly is a "hop-pocket monk?" Help us out here...