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!

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