Thursday, April 23, 2009

Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lijiang is about a three hour drive north from Dali. Stefan and I met Jo and Judy at our guesthouse and the four of us made plans to hike the Tiger Leaping Gorge together. We only spent a day and a half in the touristy city of Lijiang. One night we had a local dinner of grilled chuan which is meat, veggies or tofu on a stick with hot spices added as you like. You can find vendors all over China late into the night.

From Lijiang we took a bus to the start of the gorge. It was a hot day and the gorge ranges between 1600 to 10,800 feet. It's said to be one o the world's deepest river canyons. A part of the Yangtze River, locally known as Golden Sands River, runs through the Jade Snow Dragon and Haba Xueshan mountains. We were hiking uphill at a higher altitude for the entire first day. There was a local Naxi man (Naxi is one of the native ethnic groups in the area) who followed us from the start of the path. He was hoping one of us would collapse and need to use his horse. I was the slowest and he kept walking behind me and warning me of the dreaded "28 bends"! I kept telling him in Mandarin, "Wo bu yao ma!" which means, "I don't want the horse!". Every locale person we met along the way kept warning us of the 28 bends which was
nothing compared to what we had to climb to get to them. The bends were just a set of switchbacks and the final steep ascent we had for the day. Once at the top our group, which grew by two, posed for this photo.

We stayed at the Five Fingers Guesthouse which is the home of the hospitable Mr. Li and his family. We met two South African travelers, Bryce and Leah, and our group celebrated the seven hours of hiking with a great meal, several bottles of pijiu and some of Mr. Li's homemade plum wine.

The guesthouse is named after the set of mountains we had as our view. The five peaks resemble five fingers.

We set out early the next morning wanting to hike to a guesthouse perched at the top of the gorge where you can descend down to the Tiger Leaping rock. Legend is that a tiger used the rock as a stepping stone to get to the other side of the gorge. Signs on the trail told us we only had an hour but the hike turned out to be about twice as log so we were happy to finally fill up on some breakfast.

After that we had the choice of three locations to take a trail down and then a set of ladders back to the top. The trails and ladders are maintained by locals that run guesthouses. We started our trek down to the river at an old woman's path. She collected 10 RMB (about 1.50 US) to use her path. The trail is rather treacherous and the ladders were even more scary for me, someone not particularly keen of heights. The river itself was fast flowing and we soaked our aching feet in the cold water.

After climbing up the rickety ladders (there were three sets) we rested with the old woman who collects the fee for the trail. We had a picture taken with her and her grand kids. The kid loved the trail mix that I shared with them and I ended up giving them the bag.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cycling through the countryside of Dali

I spent two separate days cycling around the villages and lake Er' hai in Dali. On the first trip Stefan and I set out for Butterfly Springs and the Lakeview Hostel. It was a hot day and villagers were in the middle of harvesting wheat, beans and black sesame. Riding through the streets we'd ride over stalks of the plants that were laid out on the streets to dry. The villages around Dali are mainly Bai nationality people.

We cycled to a nearby village where we stopped for a bowl of spicy mi xian noodles prepared in the open market area. About four or five stalls were set up all run by different women.

We took a detour from the main road and came across a compound that I at first thought was for farmers working the fields. We discovered a group of women cooking a huge meal in a small house and they told me they were cooking for over 500 people. Outside the wall a few people came to set up stands selling watermelon, popcorn, drinks and toiletries. I believe that they told us that we could join people for lunch which was at 12pm. So, we took our bikes into the compound to wait the fifteen minutes and discovered some dorm rooms and soon enough we realized we were in a school. It was a middle school with kids from villages around Dali. They live on the campus six days a week and go home on Saturday afternoons.

When the bell rang kids came streaming out of their classrooms and were surprised to see two foreigners standing in the courtyard. We'd get triple takes as students came around corners. Some would stop dead in their tracks and then run to other friends. Traveling in packs a couple would have the courage to shout "Hello!" or "How are you?" then their group of friends would giggle and run. When we tried to respond they would laugh even harder. There was only one student brave enough to approach us. Yan is a sixteen year old from a village a couple hours from Dali. He was well above the average height for a Chinese boy and sauntered over to us as he ate his lunch from his rice bowl. He sat down and chatted with us about the school, his village, our travels and education in China for about twenty minutes. The other kids looked at him with envy but no one else participated in the conversation. At one point Stefan pulled out a map of the area and that lured the group of boys in even closer. Whenever I took out my camera the kids would run and hide behind one another. I entertained a group of the girls by showing them some photos on my camera.

On my second trip, I went with two travellers we met at our guesthouse. Brian, a native of Xi'an, China and Peter, a journalist from the states. We took a similar route but took more time actually riding on small foot paths through the fields.

We headed to the lake shore where we rented a boat with a Cormorant fisherman. The Bai villagers around Dali use the birds to fish in the lake. There is a thin piece of string sewn into the bird's neck which prevents it from swallowing the fish that they catch. We spent about an hour in the boat while twenty birds swam around in the water catching fish. When one would extend it's neck, the fisherman would know it had a fish and pluck it from the water by the neck. He'd then hold the bird by the neck until it would release the fish.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Dali Days

I met Stefan at a hostel in Kunming and together we headed to Dali to make it in time for the San yue jie, a festival that brings together villagers from various ethnic backgrounds. We arrived at the bus station and were assured by people that we were going to Dali even though the ticket had a different name. We were going to arrive to the newer city about 20k south of Dali's old city. As we waited for our bus to leave a man selling newspapers walked on the bus and slowly passed each passenger showing them the newspaper. He was trying to entice us to buy a newspaper with a huge front page photo of a bus perched on the side of a mountain; an accident that had occurred early that week. Not exactly what you want to see before taking off on a six hour bus ride.

Once in the new city we took a shuttle bus to the old city and were dropped off just outside the city's old wall and across from the bustling festival market. We wound our way past vendors and eventually settled on the International Guest House away from the crowded tourist area. Dali is a rare place in China as many old and new generation hippies have settled in the laid-back city and walking the streets you'll see handicrafts from the local Bai women as well as handmade jewelry from hippie westerners.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are displayed in front of most restaurants and waiters stand in front luring people inside. Mushrooms in several varieties are native around Dali and on our first night we joined a young Swiss student for a meal consisting of about five different mushrooms in different dishes.

I loved taking walks through the old streets around our guesthouse where there are still signs of old Bai style architecture and many families live behind large wooden doors leading into courtyards.

On our second day, Stefan and I went to wander through the festival market. At the start we felt like we were walking through a sidewalk sale with vendors standing on ladders or wearing signs to advertise discounts on clothing, shoes and household goods. Further up the hill we came across the huge food area with makeshift restaurants lined up under tents. Gigantic woks cooked rice while other cooks prepared countless chickens.

Very popular booths were dedicated to Chinese and Tibetan medicines. Tables were stacked high with dried plants, insects, turtle shells, roots, bark, animal parts and other unidentifiable items. At one booth a Tibetan woman called to us to join her for a rest. We spent the next hour chatting with her in my broken Chinese. She was a patient with my limited vocabulary and we learned that she and her husband make the long journey from Lhasa, Tibet each year for the festival. They live in the tent, sleeping in small beds that were tucked in the back corner. Yak hair hung from the top of the tent and as I talked with her about my ailing back I kept brushing up against it. My Tibetan doctor took my pulse and prescribed some medicine that I know comes from a bear in the Himalayas. I found out later from a Scottish researcher that it's likely bile from the bear's gallbladder. Mixed in tea and taken twice a day were my instructions. She also gave me some liquid to apply and she made it clear that it was not for eating. The medicine was wretched and it took a lot to choke it down. I have to say that it has helped!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Return to the Middle Kingdom

We drove down the mountains to the Viet Nam/China border in sheets of rain. With ever curve the driver took at a reckless speed on the wet road I'd grab April's arm and duck my head below the seat. Once at the bottom we sighed with relief and my stomach unclenched. The driver called back to us and we established the price for the ride. However, in common Viet Nam fashion, he doubled the price once we were out and he had handed our bags. I rolled my eyes and sighed as April patiently repeated what he had said in the van over and over. We held our ground and he eventually gave up and returned to the van. With that final interaction to remember Viet Nam we headed across the border into China.

From Lao Cai you walk over a bridge and into the uninspiring town of Hekou, China. At the border office I was able to use a little Mandarin which put smiles on the guards' faces. We had read about accounts of people having their Lonely Planet guide books taken away so when the guard asked if we had any books April and I began throwing every other book in our bags as cooperatively as we could to deflect attention to other books buried in our packs.

We found our way to the bus station and had assistance from an English speaking attendant who informed us there was not a direct bus to our destination of Jian Shui. We booked tickets on a local bus to a smaller town where we then transferred buses. The local bus was small and the metal bars were easily felt through the seats as we bounced around on the road that wove its way through Yunnan's beautiful mountains. We made several stops in small towns and at random street corners. The biggest sign that I was back in China was the resumed spitting. A woman entered the bus with a huge sack of rice. At one point it fell over and rice spilled onto the bus floor. She pushed a man's foot away as she scooped up the rice and placed it back into the sack. Ten minutes later she cleared her throat loudly, freeing as much phlegm as possible, and spat onto the bus floor.

At our transfer destination we determined we had to go to a different station for the Jianshui bus. After many attempts to understand people's face paced speech we hopped into a motorized pedi cab. Our second bus ride wasn't nearly as scenic or as colorful as the first. Disembarking from the bus in Jianshui we took a ride on a what could be a three-wheeled mini pick-up. Our driver put a 2x4 across the back where April and I sat like the local fair princesses in a parade waving to the crowds. April was in love with the town's abundance of traditional Chinese architecture. I realized that I had been in China a long time as the curved rooftops and city wall seemed familiar and commonplace in a way.

It was pretty easy to be noticed in Jianshui as two of just a handful of westerners that we didn't see until the following day. That evening we walked down the pedestrian street and had endless "Hellos!" shouted in our direction. Usually, there's not the expectation that you'll reply. When we did, to two young adolescent girls, they giggled uncontrollably. The next day we were wandering through the narrow streets when a girl of about eight confidently shouted "Hello!" to us as she walked to her home. I asked her in Chinese if she could speak English. Somewhat stunned she said no so I took the opportunity to teacher her good-bye. Once at her door she turned and shouted "Good-bye!" and I returned with "Zai jian!"

Jianshui's old architecture is remarkable. There are also still usable wells within the old streets that people use for washing and cooking. I'm rather obsessed with Chinese doors and kept pausing at each one we passed along the back streets to take a picture. We visited the city's gate that resembles the one at the Forbidden City (granted much, much smaller) and the Confucian Temple. The Temple, built in 1285, was a school for over 750 years.

We also sampled the local cuisine and had the best grilled eggplant at a simple local restaurant that specialized in the Jianshui BBQ. After over a year in China I also had my first chicken foot! On our last night we sampled the traditional stews served with medicinal herbs in a clay pot. That night the waitress came over to me to help her translate with a foreign couple in the restaurant. That request made my classes and studying in Shanghai worth it!

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Za and the Sapa Trek

Across the rock I watched Za take a photo of herself, wearing my sunglasses, with her camera phone. As I watched her, I couldn't help to think how our sixteen year old trekking guide symbolizes the changes across generations among the Black H'mong (and other minorities) in the villages of Sapa.

We took a two day trek to some of the different villages around Sapa. The morning April and I met Za she was dressed in traditional Black H'mong clothing but, I noticed some of the subtle fashion statements she made. Instead of her hair twisted into a top knot and the traditional head wrap, she had her long hair pulled back and secured with a fuzzy, neon green band. Long, dangle star earrings replaced the traditional thick, heavy silver hoops that elongated the lobes of Za's elders. Soon into our trek we began interrogating Za and it soon led to boyfriends. Her older sister by two years had just married. She shrieked, "I don't want to be married! I want to be a career woman." Again, another sign of the changes from the traditions in the villages.

The three of us set out for our two day trek and were quickly joined by two other women who we thought were just keeping Za company until we arrived at our lunch spot and they pulled out purses and earrings asking us to buy from them. April and I enjoyed their company and their occasional hand to help us down steep areas so were happy to support them.
Terraced fields stretched out along the valley. We watched people work in the plots, preparing them for planting. Every family owns at least one water buffalo, a crucial commodity.

After lunch the three of us hiked just a short while before arriving at our home stay for the night. We were the only guests and were warmly received by the owner and his family. They fed us extremely well at each meal.

That evening Za took us for a walk around the village which was where her family also lived. My most memorable moment was visiting a family that she knows. We walked through the gate and into the family farm. From the simple wooden frame house we could hear singing from inside. We walked through the open doors which was similar to walking into a barn. The floor was compact dirt and there was a tarp lying in the middle. It was a rectangle with a small loft above. In one corner there was a bed made of boards set on top of cinder blocks. Eleven children ranging from 3 to 15 years of age were on the tarp singing and dancing to Christian songs. A young man led the group standing at the front of the tarp. A young couple stood towards the back of the tarp, also participating. Sitting on a small stool was an old woman who was watching the group. She gave us all stools and April and I silently sat down to watch the interactions. One young girl's voice rose above the rest and she took pride in directing the others in the next song or hand movements. Later Za told us that she was her younger sister. We could see the similarities in her feisty personality. I was overwhelmed by the simplicity of their home and by the joy everyone had from spending time together. It was a beautiful and special moment that I was fortunate to witness.

The next morning we continued on our trip and were joined by, yet again, by two other women. This time a young girl of 15 and an older woman. The young girl was shy but extremely agile on the narrow, steep paths. I tried to follow her stride as she'd gallop down steep paths. At one point Za led us up into a bamboo forest. She said it was the "easier" way and we were especially in favor of a bamboo forest. What we weren't expecting was having to side-step across a water filled terrace. I clutched both hands of our additional guides as my heart pounded on the slippery terrace wall. Carrying a heavy basket on her back and watching out for both April and I, the older woman certainly had her work cut out for her. Once taking a break at a waterfall before descending to our lunch spot, she showed off her wares and April and I were happy to purchase some goods. The woman use natural indigo that grows in the valley to dye the fabric that makes up their shirts, belts, bags and baby carriers. You can see many woman with dyed hands and finger nails. The shy, young girl wasn't as aggressive as some of her peers and often took some time on her own. I caught this picture of her as she stared out to the waterfall.

I had already fallen in love with Sapa before our trek and spending two days in the villages put it at the top of my destinations list.

These kids were along our path on the second day. They followed us down and I took a number of photos of them. Many of the kids ran around with little clothing and bare feet. Several had runny noses, as you may be able to see on the boy in this photo. Just after taking the photo, I took a tissue and wiped it.