Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Of Floods, Rock Slides, and Cows In The Road

You may have heard that there have been heavy rains in certain parts of China, including Jilin Province where we stayed for a few days. Personally, I had given the weather very little thought (except, of course, when I was on the verge of being blown off the mountaintop!) Little thought, that is, until our drive from Changbaishan to Yanji, during which our driver kept muttering in Chinese, "Why are there no cars coming the other way? And, more ominously, "What time is your flight tomorrow?"

And wouldn't you know it, on cue, the traffic suddenly came to a complete stop, on a part of the road right next to a swollen river. Turns out, there were some workers up ahead, clearing the road of debris. It was not clear to me whether this brief delay was construction or weather related. Regardless, as we started back up, I asked shifu (our driver) if there were likely to be any other problems ahead. Wo bu zhidao. "I don't know." Uh oh...

A little while later, as we crossed a high mountain pass, there was evidence of mudslides all along the way. But it ended up being a construction project that caused us the biggest concern. With the road narrowed to one lane, we started to cross the affected area. But then suddenly a series of vehicles appeared, coming right toward us from the opposite direction. The road crew did not have people stationed at each end, regulating the flow of traffic so that things alternated smoothly. As for us, awkwardly caught in the middle, the dicey moment came when shifu decided not to retreat and to negotiate the minivan down a one-foot high, debris filled border between the lane we were in and the lane we needed to get to in order to pass through. As this move unfolded, I noticed that Desi moved over to the right side of the car, in an effort to prevent the car from tipping over. For my part, I was leaning hard to the right as well.

Safely through, our driver spent the next couple of minutes spewing invectives about how stupid Chinese people are. He did, thankfully, interrupt his tirade long enough to swerve around a cow that had decided to lay down right in the middle of our lane. Just another day on the roads of rural China...


PS: As an aside, shifu was an interesting guy. At one point during the drive, apparently comfortable with us after two days together in a minivan, he asked me when I thought the Chinese Communist Party would be overthrown. I responded that I would be dead by the time that happened. Bu dui! came the response. "You are wrong!" "But the Chinese people seem so happy with the government and with their increasing standard of living." Shifu's response? "We say we are happy on the outside, but in our hearts it is not that way. The government just grabs our money and doesn't give enough to the common people." As if on cue, we passed a small factory that, according to shifu, was not along ago farmland that had been claimed by the government as a way of attracting foreign investment. A familiar story, for sure. It just came from an unusual messenger...

Monday, August 02, 2010

Scenes From Dixia Senlin

Dixia Senlin is a forest on the side of Changbaishan. Even with the rain, it made for a beautiful late morning walk.


The Most Beautiful Sight I Ever Happily Missed The Chance To See

One of the highlights of a trip to Changbaishan has to be Tianchi, the large crater lake at the peak of the mountain. Having seen picture after picture of Tianchi at every trinket stand, I was looking forward to a peek.

So the other morning when we awoke to the sound of water...unfortunately not the adjacent stream but rather sheets of rain...I thought we might not get the chance.

Our first decision of the day was whether to head out at all. Knowing the preparedness of the Chinese, though, we were convinced that they would have cheap rain ponchos for sale in the lobby. The only surprise was that the fifteen kuai gear actually had both a poncho and pants!

Armed with provisions and outer wear, we left the hotel and boarded a bus, then an SUV, for what would become quite an adventure.

The beauty of this site this day, though, was not the view (which was nonexistent). Rather, it was the fun that the weather bought. Perhaps likened to conditions that might occur atop Mount Washington (reported to be one of the most wild weather places in the world), winds gusted, rain whipped, and even some hail made an appearance. Sounds miserable, no?

Actually, not at all. All the craziness actually led to a most acute experience, while we and hundreds of our Chinese and Korean pengyoumen laughed and screamed as we climbed to the top.

At one point, as the clouds seem to rise from the crater, I asked Steve and the kids to stick out their tongues because I was convinced that the moisture tasted salty. I wasn't sure why that would be the case, but it did to me, so I needed back up. As Julie stuck her tongue out, she started cracking up because the wind was so strong that a small rock flew into her mouth. Then Z shouted, "Ouch!", as another rock was blown onto his face (I told him that he was allowed to keep any stones lodged in his body). Then Steve let out a yelp as a rock flew in his eye. "Are you OK?" I asked. "Yep." So we continued to be caught up in the moment and yelled things like, Jiu jiu wo! ("Save me!") And we pretended we were going to be lifted off the ground like kites...Julie almost was!

Now we all know what those weathermen who report from hurricane sites feel like. It must be pure adrenalin.



Where Did Our Beds Go?

This was the scene that greeted us when we opened the door to our room at the Tianshang Hotel. No frames. No box springs. No mattresses. Just an open and empty floor.

People in this particular part of the world have traditionally slept on kangs, which in some locations consist of brick platforms that are heated by fire from underneath. For our night on Changbaishan, we opted for the version of kangs where the floor itself is heated and blankets are laid out according to your comfort. The warmth emanating from the floor made for an interesting contrast with the cool mountain air blowing in through the open windows.

So how did we do all spread out this way?

I personally enjoyed the warm blankets, though the floor was a bit hard for my tastes. No harder, I should note, than many of the mattresses I have slept on over the years.

Desi remarked that shui kang (sleeping on kangs) would be great in the winter, but was kind of hot for the summer. "I kept looking for a cool piece of the floor. I wanted to turn the heat off under me."

As for Julie and Z, they both thought it was a comfortable night, except for when Z banged his head (against the wall, he thinks).

Maybe one day we'll try the bricks and fire version...


Sunday, August 01, 2010

Changbaishan Hot Springs: The Boys

You already know what happened to Mom and Julie when they walked behind the nv door. Now here is what took place when Dad and I entered the nan hot springs room...

Luckily, there were no other people in the water when we went in. The room had rows of showers and three pools...one extremely hot, one the normal heat for hot springs, and one extremely cold. We both went for the medium, which was about forty degrees Celsius.

It was...awesome!

Several minutes later, we were joined by a group of about ten Korean men, who stripped down into their "birthday suits" and hopped in.

Having nothing to do with the rest of the post, I had a goal to stay in the extremely cold pool for several minutes. I succeeded a little while after the others came in. A young boy, probably about ten years old, saw me and decided to do what I was doing. He touched the water and ran away.

While we were bathing, a worker came in and told us to take off our suits. We simply said, "No, we don't want to." The man was very persistent and kept at it.

Dad then said to the man in Chinese, "That's weird. I'm not taking my clothes off."

The man continued to pester us, so Dad said, "Tell them over there to put some clothes on." That, in my opinion, was the best part of the night.

Then, one of the men stood up out of the pool, pointed directly at his private parts, and said in marbled English, "Like dis!"

The rest of our time in the tubs was spent with them trying English phrases on us and us responded in Mandarin. One very courageous man went into the forty-nine degree Celsius pool and shouted, "Number one!" I shouted back, "Zhen lihai!" (This means "awesome" or "fierce.")

Once we were done bathing, we went to change, but the worker got mad at us for getting water on the floor. Dad managed to get by the man and out of the door, but I was forced to wait until he stopped paying attention. This time, unfortunately, never came. I managed to convince him that my bathing suit was dry. I tehn basically grabbed my stuff and ran.

All I can say is that the bath was not at all like Berkeley Springs or Xi'an!