Friday, March 27, 2009


We had only two days left before Richard needed to return to Hong Kong for his flight to the US but the gorge was only about 3 hours from Li Jiang by bus. The gorge was cut by the Yangtze River and was the only remaining untamed part of this river. Known as the "Golden Sand" River here either because of the deposits of golden sand on the banks or the deposits of gold, it forms a canyon as deep as the Grand Canyon and much narrower across. Westerners have bee trekking there for 10 or 20 years and a road has been put through at about midlevel.

Since our time was very limited we decided to take a minivan from the park entrance to Tina's, a hotel on the road about half way through the park and hike down the gorge to the river. We arrived by noon, stowed our luggage in our room, ate some lunch and began our hike to the second rapids about 2000 feet and 2 hours walk below us. The river at 6000 feet above sea level runs between two 18,000 foot peaks though it is impossible to see the summits from the bottom of the gorge and one only gets glimpses of them from the road. There was a line of Chinese descending ahead of us but held up by one fearful and slow woman in the lead. We slowly made our way down to the bottom and everyone climbed on to the rock that the tiger leaped from to cross the gorge. Of course, the other side of the gorge was shear and vertical, so it wasn’t clear where the tiger leaped. Everyone took turns taking pictures of themselves on the tiger rock. It seems that Chinese tourists have mandatory photos at all the sites. The air was fresh, clean and clear. We were in the gorge next to the second. The trail up, ascended by a series of ladders over rock faces and again there were enough hikers that you had to wait for your turn on the ladder. We were however, the oldest people in the gorge, and two of only six westerners on that sunny wonderful afternoon. Judy decided that she couldn’t make it back to the top of the trail when a man with donkeys showed up and offered to take her up for a small fee.

The night was cold but our beds had heating pads so despite the wind rattling the windows and the lack of heat in the room we were toasty and warm. We decided to get up early and hike to the end of the normal trek which was about 40 minutes down the road to Sean’s Guest House where we had breakfast. The rest of the day consisted of making travel connections back to Li Jiang, visiting a little more of the village She Hu outside of Li Jiang before our flights to Szenzhen China arriving on the Hong Kong border only minutes before the midnight closing and then taking a train, bus and taxi back to our apartment in Hong Kong.

The next day, Monday, Richard went to the airport for his 15 hour flight to New York and the day after that Judy went back to Szenzhen for her flight to Jingdezhen.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Yunnan without Shangri-La

We had planned on visiting two other small old cities in Yunnan, Dali and Li Jiang. We tried to catch a bus out of Kunming after returning from Stone Forest but we received bad information and there was no last bus. Rather than taking the overnight bus and arriving at 5 a.m., we stayed in town. So, it was another dinner at the western style Ma Ma Fu's and a night at the Camellia Hotel. Their Chinese food was good but the apple pie was not worth ordering.

I found that my sweet tooth was not satisfied in China. Chinese chocolate doesn't use cocoa butter but a substitute so we stuck with Dove bars which was the only western style chocolate bar available in all over. We got into the habit of buying one small bar each day. We tried some of the Chinese baked goods as bakeries were pretty common but they didn't fill the bill.

Another western luxury we didn't forgo was coffee. Most western style breakfasts offered only Nescafe or charged a premium for brewed coffee. We often spent extra for the Yunnan grown coffee. Every hotel had either electric bottled water dispensers with hot and cold spigots or an electric kettle. China does tea not coffee. In addition, boiled water is necessary to be sure that the water is aseptic. So each morning we began the day with Nescafe packets of instant coffee with sugar and lightened.

So after breakfast at the Camellia we were off to Dali. The old town is a small (less than one square mile) walled, cobbled, mostly rebuilt as a medieval city. It had had a new rather than real old town feel and was busy with Chinese tourists shopping in the stalls selling goods of all variety on the main street. It had western style restaurants on "Foreigner Street" but most of tourists were Chinese. It did have some streets with local people, their stone working shops and their local markets. It was small enough that it felt comfortable and not over run. We stayed at a small hotel owned by a Bai family (the ethnic minority). Among the westerners here, we were the only older ones. We were enough of an oddity to be noticed by the Chinese hordes.

First day we visited a park of temples and three pagodas. The pagodas dated back to 800 AD while the many temples were completely destroyed during the cultural revolution and rebuilt new about 30 years ago. Dali and the region around it has an interesting history. It was on the tea route and for several hundred years was an independent country in the middle ages. It is 65 percent minority mostly Bai though everyone speaks Chinese. We stayed at an ethnic hotels run by Mr Yin and it was comfortable, quiet with a terrace on the top floor. The second day there we rented bikes and visited the small villages and farms in the area. Again we were transported back to the traditional, poor and agrarian China. The fields were irrigated well watered and the spring soy bean crop was ready for harvest.

The next morning, a bus, this time to Li Jiang, another historic city, this time of the Naxi minority. These people are closer to Tibetans and feature Yak and goat products including yogurt and their own distinctive costumes.

Another digression - I don't know Chinese culture or history enough to really understand the place of minority groups in China. The minorities are revered. However it seems that without autonomy, the minority cultures are being absorbed into the dominant Han Chinese Mandarin culture which represents over 90% of the population of China. The people dressed in colorful costumes are primarily young and work for the government in these theme park like re-creations of probably dying cultures. It is in the small outlying villages that you see the minorities, old, poor and peasant working the fields. I suspect that the intermarriage and absorption of these groups will lead to their disappearance in this century. Without real autonomy they will vanish.

Another bus, this time to Li Jiang another historic city, this time of the Naxi minority. These people are closer to Tibetans and feature Yak and goat products including yogurt.
So,there we were in Li Jiang, another Chinese city with a theme park old town. It is picturesque but inauthentic. At night, the bars and restaurants pump up the volume, have minority dance performances to compete with each other for the Chinese tourist. We were warned to not stay in the old town because of the noise level and so we checked into a hotel and hostel run by Tibetans, a few blocks outside of and with a great view of the old city. We visited the old city with its stalls selling Yak products, tea and local handicrafts and realized that we didn’t want to spend our last day there. The next stop on the Chingo (that is the Chinese Gringo Trail, obscure but email me if you want to understand the allusion) is Shangri-La. The Chinese tourists much revere this small city as well. It became famous in the west due to the 1933 novel by James Hilton titled “Lost Horizon” about a utopic valley of eternal spring lost in the mountains of Tibet or Western China. It is also a film from 1937. Wikipedia has some interesting comments about the author, the film and its effect on the public; check it out. We want to see the natural rather than the artificial so we were off to Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

From Yangshuo to Western China

Friday evening: The weather cleared, it stopped raining so we climbed to the top of the peak in the park in the middle of Yanshuo and were greeted by a beautiful view of both the city and the mountains.

Saturday: This was our last full day at Owen College in Yangshuo and it was the first really clear sunny day since we arrived in China. So, we rented bicycles, found a group of about a dozen students from the college and went off on a bicycle trip down the Yu Long River. We rode for several hours going from two lane concrete roads, to one-lane roads to dirt roads to mud paths between the rice paddies. John, one of our leaders first had a chain mishap and then a flat tire on his bike that he managed to get fixed by finding the village bicycle repair person and waiting for him to arrive. Finally we stopped for lunch at a narrow concrete bridge over the river. There was an outdoor restaurant with separate cooking shack. One of the students ordered lunch which consisted of about five dishes: fish, chicken, pork, tofu and vegetables. The owner of the restaurant netted some fish that were in an impoundment along the side of the river. The fish flopped around on the concrete pad until he came over to slaughter them. The wife of the owner took a chicken killed, plucked and cleaned it in the river. While we waited for lunch to be served, a few of the guys took out bamboo rafts on to the river and poled back and forth. Lunch was served family style. The chicken was bony, the fish had bones and scales and had to be picked to get to the flesh. The students savored the fish organs as well as the fish itself. I again felt like becoming a vegetarian and relied on the tofu dish for my source of protein. The pork however was very good.

After lunch we all went on the river in bamboo rafts while Alex and John poled us around. Judy and I taught English songs to the students including Row Your Boat, I Love to Go A'Wandering (Valderie) and Bicycle (by Queen). Finally we took off again in search of the "old" Dragon Bridge across the Yu Long River. After several hours more of riding, two false turns, another flat tire, and a side visit to the Li Familial House (only about 100 years old) we arrived at the bridge.

We had made plans to take an early bus to Guilin with Trent (the acting director), who would arrange for us to see some if the city and then get us to our plane. We totally misunderstood that Trent was going to a job's fare and that we were going to help him interview Chinese applicants for jobs at the college. We tested the fluency of around twenty people and rated their proficiency. We then met a group of local students who took us for a walk in a park and down to the Li river which runs through thew city. The plan was for Trent to meet us with our luggage. Of course he was late and we had to rush to make the plane. Judy asked the driver to hurry and he drove like a madman. We think that none of them have flow or realized that you have to arrive at least an hour in advance.

We arrived in Kunming airport, two hours to the west of Guilin, booked our return flight to Hong Kong, found a hotel room and took a minibus into town. The next morning we took a bus to Stone Forest (Shi Lin), about 90 km from Kunming. This formation of pinnacles, passageways, mazes, balance rocks, are the eroded remains of limestone mountains (karst). The park was overrun with Chinese tourists in groups led by guides dressed in clothes of the local ethnic minority, but very much in costume.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Teaching at Yangshuo

The school is located right in town and from the roof there is a wonderful view of the Karst mountains and the rooftops of the houses. Most of the houses in this neighborhood look relatively new and there are solar water heaters on the roofs. Yangshuo is located as far south as Key West Florida and while it has no frost, the weather in the winters is very cool and misty. We have had very few clear days in south China including Hong Kong and Macau.
This Monday to Friday we will be going out to countryside villages and teach English to third to sixth graders. The schools have mandatory English starting in the third grade but generally don't have enough English teachers to satisfy the curriculum. The Owen School where we are staying in Yangshuo provides ESL teachers to these villages. Each day at 1pm we are taken by van to a different village and teach two classes of English to the Chinese students.

On Sunday we had a quiet day, walked around the commercial part of Yangshuo where the shops, stalls and cafes are located. Richard was still cold so we shopped for and bought a fleece for him. I don't know if it was a real Timberland or a knock off but the zipper seems a little cheaper than what I would have expected for a real one. We took a small tour on the Li River in a motorized Bamboo. The raft holds maybe 8 people but we were her only customers. The weather was overcast and cool so it wasn't an optimal time for floating down the river but the scenery was beautiful. The scenery was beautiful and she told Judy in Chinese what the names of each of the mountains were and refused to continue on until she took a picture of each site. The mountains are other worldly but just like they have been depicted historically on Chinese scroll paintings. After about a cold hour on the river we were dropped at the quai and went to a cafe for a real coffee. The Chinese drink tea not coffee so it is difficult to find real cups of coffee except in the districts that cater to foreign tourists. We found a small in just off the tourist commercial district and ordered our drinks. There we met a Chinese couple from Guandong and spent several hours talking with them. She is a business student in an MBA program at Columbia University in New York, he was a lawyer. Her English was quite good while his was marginal. We had a wonderful talk with her about modern times, the economy, the Chinese cultural revolution, nationality and ethnic identity. It was a relaxing and informative afternoon. We exchanged email addresses and went on our ways.

Monday the weather cleared and we had blue sky and warm weather in the Yangshuo valley. We spent the morning walking around the town, visiting the local park and orienting ourselves in town. We headed back to Owen College for lunch. The meals are quite good and the food is copious. Rice is served at all three meals. In the morning it is in the form of a rice porridge while at lunch and dinner it is served to accompany the stir fry dishes. Breakfast also has noodles, steamed buns and Beijing sticks, which are kind of like crullers but not sweetened.

After lunch we were taken to Moshan a small village about 20 minutes from town. We were greeted by the principal of the school who thanked us for coming and offered us boiled water before the class started. Since the water in China is uncertain, we will only drink the water if it is boiled. We are generally eating fruit and vegetables if they are peeled. We have seen along Li river that people wash their vegetables with river water, and we were told that there is little sewage treatment and that waste flows into the river. We taught two classes a 4th and 5th grade class. It was kind of like doing Sesame Street live. We did a song with them, acted out the meaning of each line and then had them perform it. We discussed the English words for body parts, colors, foods, and positional prepositions by acting out each word or phrase. The class rooms were very stark, with wooden desks, white concrete walls, floors and ceilings. There is no heat in the rooms and the children were wearing their outdoor clothing during the class. While it had warmed up it was still chillly inside. There were about 16 pupils in a class and they weren't the well behaved children we had expected. They tended to not pay attention, and talk to each other. I'm not sure if it was the substitute teacher syndrome that we all know from our own childhoods or there is a new sense of freedom and unruliness sweeping modern China. It is challenging, exhausting but satisfying to go into these agrarian villages and teach the children English. It seems that even if the U.S. fades as the predominant power in the 21st century, China's decision to teach all its school children English starting in the thrid grade will leave English as the common language (lingua franca?) of world business and tourism. Most of the classrooms had pictures of the pantheon of communism above the black board, namely Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao, Sun Yat Sen a nationalist and father of modern China but not fitting with the others. Those pictures are probably 30 years old or more but Mao is a continued presence in modern China with his photo on all the money.

Our mornings are free so on Tuesday we rented bicycles to get around town and visit the countryside. China outside of the city is an agrarian peasant society. Just 15 minutes from town the villages are agricultural, poor and run down. At the same time the gardens and plots are neat, well cared for and varied. We could see every sort of vegetable and fruit growing between rice fields. The rice was in various states of growth from just being planted, to flooded to large stalks coming out of the ground. Everything gets used and reused, piles of sticks, bales of rice straw, vegetable and fruit peels are each in their proper place. Old tree stumps are made into furniture. The people for the most part are tending their fields by hand with hoes, shovels and the fields are plowed by hand with a man directing a water buffalo pulling a plow. The valleys around Yangshuo are very smokey and hazy. There is a lot of burning, for cooking, for clearing fields, by the trucks powered by two stroke engines, by motorcycles and cars.

Bicycling through town is an experience. No one seems to really pay attention to the traffic laws. It is survival of the strongest here. If you are a bicycle, yield to motorcycles. If a car, yield to trucks. Every vehicle moves slowly enough so that somehow it seems to work but when on the bike, I find it necessary to scan the complete horizon in all directions to feel safe. We are driving, one gear girl's bikes with hand brakes and thick wheels. Anything faster that this would be dangerous to handle in this town. I can't imagine zipping through the city with my 20 speed racing bike.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Great Leap Forward to China

It's been a busy few days since Macau. We got ready to travel into China, bought
tickets for the overnight busy from Shenzhen to Yangshuo and crossed the Hong Kong border to Szenzhen China. Shenzhen was a small fishing village when the government declared it a special economic zone 30 years ago. It is now a city with over a million people and much of the production for export in China. We spent the afternoon at a Spa (where Richard was snookered into buying a premium service) but we were relaxed and ready to go.

We had only a short time to get from the train station where we were dropped off after the spa to the bus station to catch out bus so we asked a policeman in the train station for directions. He spoke only Mandarin so Judy did the interaction. It was incredible that he said he would show us and proceded to take us on a twenty minute walk first to the wrong bus station and then after asking one of the guards, to the correct station, taking us first to the ticket window get our tickets stamped and then to the departure gate. The bus had beds, upper and lowers and three rows across with aisles separating them. The beds had pillows and blankets and out could easily stretch out. At least someone my size found it possible to stretch out. While it was comfortable, it was difficult to sleep, as initially, the bus television and radio were on, and after that between the driver honking, the baby next to me crying and the man behind us coughing the was constant noise. The weather turned nasty and the rain poured down most of the way.

We arrived at 5am in Yangshuo and had no idea what to do. We had planned on going to a restaurant for breakfast but when the taxi driver took us to an open, water soaked restaurant with the temperature no greater than 50 degrees, we decided to take a cheap room for a few hours and sleep until we were ready for breakfast and to call the school where we would be teaching.

After breakfast, we called and met the director of the school, an expat Canadian who has been in Yangshuo for 7 years now. His position is voluntary and apparently his wife suppports him with
a job heading another English program. He arranged for us to be taken to the school which consists of an adult program teaching ESL to Chinese who are resident at the college and the volunteer program which sends people out to small villages in the area to teach third to fifth graders. They provided us with a dormitory room with private bath with some minimal plumbing and three meals a day from Monday to Friday while we were teaching. The accomodations were comfortable enough and conveniently located in the heart of the Karst mountains of Guanxi.

That afternoon we were taken by minibus with a few other adult students to Moon Hill a famous natural bridge about 15 kilometers from town down the Li River. Trent the acting director of the college led us, Jenny a 42 year old retired Chinese bus driver drove the van with us and two other students and we hiked up to the top. As the weather started to clear a little and warm up, it was a wonderful hike with incredible views of the mountains and fields below. All the way up, we were accompanied by three Chinese women who wanted to sell us bottled drinks. They walked most of the way up the mountain with us in the hope that we would eventually buy something. Trent told us not to buy anything because they come often to hike the mountain and he didn't want them to always pester him to buy drinks. After, hiking to the top and back we went over to Moon Hill Village and had lunch at a Mother Moon's Farm Food restaurant.

The school and its students are very welcoming. Everyone introduces themselves, meals are family style Chinese and ping pong and badminton games are always going on outside in front of the dining room. We are looking forward to teaching on Monday.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Macau - What is Real?

Macau, like Las Vegas or Disneyland (there is one in HK) offers yet another way of seeing. I discussed the difference between touring and traveling, in a previous installment about Thailand. In addition, there is a third possibility, that is to visit a contrived resort/theme park, and to be sucked into the space-time continuum of nowhere. While these sites are often done with great taste, with detailed reproduction, they shouldn't be confused with travel. Many such warps in the continuum exist (kudo's to Doc of "Back to the Future"). Modern day shopping malls are often so similar from one place to the next, that there is little or no way of knowing where you are unless you leave. This homogenization of the upscale shopping experience struck me in Hong Kong where except for the Chinese characters on some signs, one could be anywhere else in the world. The shops sport such names as Bose, Godiva, Chanel, Versace, Gucci etc. These HK malls are entered be exiting any large subway station where you end up at the mall rather than the street. That higher level of contrivance, the theme park casino, is where in addition to the gaming floor there is an upscale thematic mall that reproduces a famous site that you would want to visit. While Macau can't yet compete with Las Vegas, it has casinos in large measure. The Chinese have always loved to gamble.

Macau is the only place in China where casino gambling is allowed. It is permitted because it already existed under Portuguese rule when the territory reverted to China in 1999. We visited the Venetian Hotel and Casino the evening of our stay. Many of the same casinos in Las Vegas have set up shop in Macau. This was my third trip to Venice: the first time in Italy, the second in Las Vegas and this time in Macau. I was so familiar with the layout that I was able to tell Judy where the gelati stand would be located. I was wrong, however, it was not gelati but Hagen Daz ice cream. The Grand Canal and St Marks Square were ringed with shops selling the usual designer labeled goods and expensive restaurants catering to international tastes. We found a gelati stand, an easy stroll along the canal and shared one while sitting at a Brazilian Churrosco (meat on a spit) restaurant, served water by a Phillippino, overlooking the Gand Canal of Venice, in a city in China that looked more Mediterranean than Chinese.

So, what is genuine and what is not? I'm sure I have a categorical answer to this question. I've read that the designer goods created by the fashion centers of the US and Europe, made in China and sold the world over is available cheaply in China as knockoffs. Apparently, the Chinese factories continue producing the designer goods in excess of the designer's needs and then freelance them. This allows the workers to have continued employment after the orders have been filled and the owners to profit. These additional goods, do not have the same quality control or labeling as the designers original, but are quite similar to what is being sold by the fancy Fifth Avenue shops in New York or on the Champs Elysee in Paris. Are these items counterfeit or genuine? I'm sure I don't know but they are supposed to be on sale in Szenzhen across the border from Hong Kong. Such pirated production also provides the social benefit of cheaper goods for consumers and additional employment for the workers. In the current state of the world economy both are welcomed.

Another very real encounter was with 4 twenty year old Chinese women at the Antique House Museum in Taipa. Helen, Sheila, Tina, Irene were living in Macau studying business. Their program was taught in English and so communication was easy with them. We talked about our lives, where we were heading, our family, language, life in Macau etc. They were from Beijing, Guilin (where we are headed) and Guandong (north of HK and Macau). They were surprised that we paid for our childrens' education and let them study whatever they want. They were surprised that we were traveling by ourselves through China and that Judy speaks Mandarin. They were very interested in visiting the US but realistically realized that it would not be possible for many years. When we began to say good-bye, they asked if we could exchange email addresses and we invited them to visit us if they were ever near Boston. We took group photos and went on our ways. We visited the fishing village in the south of Taipa in the drizzle and fog and then headed back to HK.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Macau - A Tiny Bit of Europe in China

We have almost exhausted our visits in Hong Kong, so we decided to go to Macau. Macau is about an hour by turbo-ferry from HK Island. We packed minimally to be able to spend the night there if we chose. Leaving HK and arriving in Macau required us to pass customs each time. Both are autonomous and legally distinct from China for the next forty years or so.

We took a pedicab into Macau old town, paying too much, as we didn't do our homework to figure out how to get there and what to visit. After passing through a wide avenue lined with casinos we arrived in old Macau and found it to be a charming Mediterranean city. It much reminded me of Lisbon, Portugal with stone multicolored sidewalks, pastel colored stuccoed buildings, painted tiles embedded in the exterior walls of buildings and old forts and churches in ruins. Macau was colonized in the 1500's by the Portuguese and they remained there until 1999 when it reverted to China retaining some autonomy for 50 more years.

Old town was charming and buzzing with tourists, most of them Chinese from the mainland. We visited the local museum which gave a historical view of the area and a picture of traditional life and I had a discussion with a Phillippine guard about the Boston Celtics. We met a local expat Australian, Louise, who invited us to have coffee with us who had been living in Macau for 8 months while her husband worked for a company manufacturing casino equipment. She gave us her recommendations for additional sites to visit and where to stay and we sat and talked with her for over an hour at the coffee shop. One of the more satisfying parts of travel for me is the meeting of people and sharing for some brief moments glimpses into eachothers lives. Then, more site seeing, on to the Best Western Hotel on Taipa Island (south of the city) dinner, walking around in the village of Taipa and sleep.