Star Date: February 2006
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
(Hello - Yao Ethnic Minority)
"Foreign places help your mind to float free
only know the words for Good night and Good day,
don't know how to say
(Garrison Keillor, U.S. writer and broadcaster)
At the confluence of the Dadu and Min Rivers, near Leshan, many boatmen and fishermen disappeared in the turbulence. In 713AD a Buddhist monk, Haitong, started a monumental project to carve the Grand Buddha, believing that the riverside Buddha would protect the lives of those in the flimsy bamboo boats below. Finished 90 years after his death, the massive statue carved from solid rock, is over 71m tall (20 stories) has ears 21 feet long, and a big toenail large enough to dance the jitterbug on. The protection of Buddha has in fact worked, as the extra rocks from the project filled in the hollow below and slowed the current, saving many lives.
After a week of city life we took the train from Chendu to Yichang. Actually they sold us a ticket to Wuchan and we had to jump off early once we realized the difference. Miscommunication happens easily between the languages and someone trying their best to write a town out in English may have a misplaced 'u' for an' i', not to mention the fact that every place in China has two names, the old and newly given one. The train passed by Wudang Shan, the monastery where Zhang San Feng, the Taoist monk who disliked the hard techniques of Shaolin martial arts, created Tai Chi. This story was recollected from studying Tai Chi over 20 years ago. While sitting on his porch, Zhang San Feng was inspired by a battle between a large bird and a snake. The serpent used flowing movements to evade the bird's attack. Exhausted, the large bird eventually gave up and flew away. This form of martial arts, known for its graceful movements and use of all body muscles, is still practiced by all the Taoist priests on Wudang Shan Mountain and by millions worldwide. In fact, at this moment, someone is doing Tai Chi outside our window.
In Yichang we went out to look at the controversial Three Gorges Dam. Bus # 8 took us through tunnels and along the beautiful Yangzi river, right to the SW end of the massive dam. You ride out with the workers and avoid the expensive tourist circus created at the other entrance. We spent the whole afternoon walking along the banks of the Yangzi and later gazing at this monumental project under construction. When completed in 2009 this will be the largest dam in the world, rivaling any Chinese engineering project to date, even the Great Wall. Measuring 555 ft high and 2 km long, with the hydroelectric production equaling 18 nuclear power plants, it will back up the Yangzi River over 500 miles and wash away homes of 2 million people.
The Three Gorges Dam will improve China's heartland marine shipping and help control flooding, which has claimed over 1 million lives during the last 100 years. The downside, as is always the case with such a large project, is the irreversible environmental damage, the loss of cultural artifacts, and the immanent disaster if the rush to complete this US$75 billion project has jeopardized structural quality. A dam broke in China in 1975 killing an estimated 230,000 people. Yichang, a city of over 4 million would disappear from the face of the earth within an hour. Dam engineers guarantee this will never happen. Let's hope they know their business well. Maybe requiring that they, and their families, live in Yichang would help add weight to important decisions.
We then traveled from man's 'majesty' to Nature's true majesty of Wulingyuan Scenic Area in Hunan. An area showing off 243 peaks, waterfalls, and approx 3000 towering limestone pinnacles, this is a highlight of many tours to Hunan. We took the minibus to Tianzishan, a remote village bordering the park. Disappointed at yet another outrageously increased entrance fee (258Ypp - $33USpp), we decided to hang out in the village and hike back into a parallel valley with similar scenery. We spent a couple of days as the center of attention in Tianzishan, getting to recognize everyone with a friendly, "Nihau". We bought what vegetables we could find and started chopping and cooking in a little sidewalk cafe. Unable to grasp the concept of using a little oil, then supplementing with a little water, the Chinese cooks who are heavy handed with oil, often step aside and say, "show me". The odd sight of having a westerner actually cooking with a wok usually gathers a fair size crowd and Joseph noted that if I had a microphone headset I could have gotten a job at the local K-Mart, marketing the latest "K-Tel" kitchen gadget (no doubt produced in China)! You never know when such skills will come in handy. One of my potential customers in the crowd was the English teacher of the local Tian Zi Middle School. We stopped by to visit her one night at their boarding school and received a rousing welcome from hundreds of hard working students. In China they don't take public education for granted. Behavior problems are few, as only the serious are allowed to continue through high school after passing rigorous exams.
Joseph was fascinated with the old trucks in use here, and, in fact, all over China. Looking like they are held together with string, a wish and a prayer, he climbed in one to try it out. It's no wonder these basic trucks are still being produced, when you see them hauling massive loads or exceeding weight limits of river rocks. We admire the utilitarian qualities of the Chinese, and decrepit as these vehicles get, they do the job. Who needs all the bells and whistles?
A long bus ride via Huaihua and Jishau brought us to, the as yet undiscovered Chinese treasure, Fenghuang. This ancient walled city has large arched stone bridges, narrow walled alleys, and Miao people selling their crafts while boats drifted down the river. Life revolves around the river which splits the town in two. Joined by magnificent covered stone bridges and for the surefooted, ancient stepping stones span the river. We got so that we even took this shortcut after dark, hoping our bath would wait until we got back to our room. All of the buildings, pagodas and bridges are lit at night creating a memorable backdrop for the hundreds of floating candles perched on origami type paper lanterns, lazily bringing good luck to those who lit and launched them. We stayed in a little family guesthouse, 3rd floor, with a balcony overlooking the river. Only the sound of the river and flutes would drift up to our rooms. OK, so occasionally the Chinese tourists across the river would get drunk and disorderly, but they seemed to fall down or get quiet in short order. As the weather grew colder the families would sit out back, clustered around a fire in their small coal burners. Here we made friends with Mao incarnate and spent many a pleasant hour by his fire sharing on a different, non verbal, level. It was only a change in the weather that tore us away from Fenghuang, after 3 weeks, and sent us south towards warmer climes.
We took a swing through the mountains of Guizhou Province in search of the Miao, Gejia, and Dong ethnic minorities. The muddy mountain roads from Kaili to Liping to Diping to Sanjiang was one of those 'are we going to make it' trips. Everyone was chatting and cheerful as we slipped through mud up to the running boards and slid around corners. Muddy roads and uphill climbs made for a risky trip but the driver, seemingly unaffected, just kept going. We saw many unfortunate trucks or vans bog down and as far as we know, they are still stuck there. After hours of stress the driver finally relaxed when we hit pavement. All of a sudden the bus veered to the right on a completely straight stretch. We yelled and woke the exhausted driver up just as we left the pavement. Luckily this was the 1st road in the area to have any shoulder to speak of.
The Dong village of Zhaoxing was worth every bit of effort it took to get there. We stayed in the only hotel in town with heat. The cold mountainous weather was bearable because we had a warm nest to climb back in to. All 700 wooden structures in town are totally created by hand, from laboriously sawing boards out of logs, to notching poles on which they are built, to carving intricate designs in the finished structure. Remarkably these multi level buildings are also constructed without nails, bolts or fasteners. Many people still wear traditional outfits and speak the local Dong dialect. The town has 5 brightly painted drum towers and several wind/rain bridges. Life along the canals is bustling and everywhere you turn is a photo. If Zhaoxing isn't authentic enough for you try walking up the dirt path into the surrounding hills. The next little village is completely untouched by tourists, mainly because of the hike up. We were invited to eat in the communal eating hall but since we had "just eaten" we probably missed trying the local delicacy of "lao shu rou", or rat. We observed men falling a tree and carrying the log down the narrow paths of the terraces towering above the village. They then blew into two 6 ft. bamboo flutes making a sort of ritualistic offering before starting the laborious job of hand sawing boards from the 15 foot log. After visiting with the crew renovating this ancient bell tower, in the center of the village, we went into stealth mode and observed village life as it has been for centuries. What a rare experience. If someone noticed us first they were startled, then they would stare, and eventually a wide smile would burst across their face. Another Don't Miss place but try to approach it via any road but through Liping - Diping.
Even though we were on the edge of winter, we didn't want to miss Dragon's Backbone. We crossed the border into Guangxi Province and from Longsheng we headed up into the highlands, home of the Yao and Zhuang people. We asked how far the minibus was going and Dazhai became our new destination. It's funny because, when traveling or in life in general, it seems as soon as you make plans something rushes in to ensure that your flexibility remains on the ready! This time, change came in the form of a landslide covering the rarely traveled dirt road. Fully loaded with our gear and the only route straight up a dirt path, we hired 2 locals who happily carried our suitcases skyward into the dizzying heights of the upper rice terraces. After walking over an hour the path leveled off and we were afforded spectacular views of the Backbone and the villages below. The paths were confusing and we followed a young man home to their newly built family guesthouse (see below).
When making dinner, some recently rendered animal fat was tossed into the wok and quickly we searched the kitchen, high and low, until together we found a small bottle of vegetable oil to use instead. Various small creatures and parts thereof were bbq'd, smoked and hung up in the new kitchen to augment our cuisine but we stuck to our old standby of veggies and noodles. No guts I guess (literally). Joseph & I have had our tastes of grubs, eel, snake, yak, etc in our day and have no need to augment the list. The room was full of "n'n'n'n" as the colorfully dressed Yao women from the village eagerly showed us their hand made tapestries and were thrilled when I bought a little pouch and a pack of postcards. They were a lively, welcoming bunch and it was remarkable to observe their way of life. We spent a pleasant evening around the small coal burners talking with several Chinese students (we later met up with "Irene" in Yangshuo) and an Australian bloke and his Chinese internet girlfriend. This is the latest cyber fad throughout Asia- these everyday girls hope for a chance of a new better life overseas and the men, in search of the perfect match, often just use them and move on. Both consenting adults, it is their choice, but cross cultural relationships are difficult at best. This fellow had 6 girls lined up to "interview".
It froze that night but we woke up to a gift from above, a glorious sunny day. Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces, with rock walls and stone paths stretching up over a thousand feet, were constructed 700 years ago during the Yuan Dynasty. For generations since then, the Zhuang and Yao people have lived together in harmony and total self reliance. It was a treat to watch them peacefully work in the fields, transport crops up to their houses or sit in the sun embroidering the intricate designs on their clothing. The various head dresses worn throughout China are intriguing. As shown us by a willing Yao woman, they wrap their long hair around their head towards the front and it becomes part of their distinguishing head piece. With hair touching the ground when undone, one of these beauties holds the Guinness World Record for the longest hair. Imagine the weight that they carry around on their heads. Probably if it is wrapped across the forehead it is distributed more evenly.
We explored the Dragon's Backbone Terraces and were treated to breathtaking views for several hours before climbing down to the village below. Although we had avoided the White Snow Dragon, our quest for warmer temperatures found us moving through Guillen to Yangshuo. The changes since 1999 made this once sleepy village unrecognizable. The one familiar thing I found was a tiny, little woman who used to sell me a bunch of tiny, little bananas everyday. This time she was selling small souvenirs in a basket. I went up to her and said, "Bananas?" Her face lit up and she replied, "Yes, bananas, bananas!" Whether she remembered me from when this was a quiet backwater or not, doesn't matter. This tiny woman had great big energy and we shared some 'words unspoken time' together as I carefully purchased a knickknack from her basket. Everywhere in China you hear the seller's call, "Hello Taxi", Hello Rambutan", "Hello Dog", or even "Hello Toilet", depending on what they are hawking. We have been called a lot of things and laugh whenever a snazzy new one catches our ear. Our little lady's call used to be, "Hello Bananas!"
A tastefully redone West Street with it's western cuisine, entertainment and cheap prices, is still a mecca for travelers taking a break from the intensity of China. It is a cheery place to rub elbows with travelers from around China and the globe. Having spent most of our time in remote areas of China, away from westerners, we just relaxed into this laid-back place for a month. The first 10 days were warm and sunny and we spent the time exploring the rivers, limestone peaks or karst topography and green fields dotted with little villages. We took a local bus up to Xingping and because the river was absolutely jammed with tour boats from Guillen, we instead explored the countryside, villages, and valleys along the river. Arriving back to town at 4pm, the dock was deserted and the hoards of tour buses had disappeared. They never deviate from their schedules! Normally the official price of the 1/2 hour cruise down to the "Traditional Fishing Village" is 100Y per person. Local boats charge 10Y but because the government (and the tour mafia) determined that these boats are unsafe (ha!) they aren't allowed to take foreigners. In a win-win deal for 35Ypp we hired our own local boat, with a traveler from Switzerland and the wife of Gary, our new Chinese, teacher friend from Yangshuo. This fair price gave us a spectacular cruise, completely by ourselves, through some of the most breathtaking limestone mountains, or mogotes, in the region. These needle- like peaks display different moods with layers of mist, clouds, or hues of sunsets inspiring painters and famous artists for generations.
Joseph's new Sony laptop arrived and after conceding to custom's payola, he excitedly spent several days setting it up and fine tuning it. The computer enriches our life and makes our quest for knowledge possible. We skipped checking out the caves and water activities, more for steamy hot summer days. We climbed up Moon Hill (only 1251 steps) and feasted our eyes on the 360 degree view (follow the dirt path up to the left at the top.) It's just past the usual sign in Chinese stating "No Admittance", but who reads Chinese? We had the fun of experiencing the local Fishing Festival, honoring the many cormorant fishermen who take their pet birds out by lantern at night, on narrow bamboo rafts, to catch fish on the river. The festivities included a parade and a fireworks display that only the Chinese know how to prepare. All the locals and tourists lined up along the river to "OOO" and "Ahh" for over an hour.
One of our favorite outings was catching the local bus to Baisha, near the ancient stone Dragon Bridge built in 1412, then wandering for over 5 miles back along the Yulong River. We simply stepped back in time and lost ourselves amongst the friendly farmers working their fields, the lazy meandering river with bamboo rafts, and ancient rural villages. We would just appear in the middle of a field and the surprised but generous farmers along the way offered us water chestnuts they were digging out of the dirt, mandarin oranges and a grapefruit-type pomelo, a specialty of this area. As the shadows lengthened we realized we were in the middle of nowhere and a long way from Yangshuo. We hopped on the back of a motorcycle and bumped along a small dirt road, around a limestone mountain, and connected with a major road leading back to town. We arrived, by local bus, in Yangshuo after dark. In the Chinese countryside there are no such luxuries as street lights and our mini flashlights are no match for the pitch black.
Every night we were lured into the tempting aromas and unfamiliar culinary sights of the Night Market. Some of our best meals to date were prepared by 'chopper', cook, boss, 'Spike' and the girls. Tables flaunted fresh vegetables along with an eclectic assortment of BBQ rat, muskrat and ???, skinned cats, dogs, rabbits, plates piled with snails and buckets of live slithering eels, snakes, fish and seafood. The specialty was beer fish, a yummy looking dish of fresh fish, tomatoes, onions & green peppers cooked in chili & beer. Mostly local Chinese tourists ate here while tour groups of westerners and Chinese paraded by, cameras blasting at the unusual fare displayed. As always happens, we become good friends with the people we cook with every night. We aren't a high revenue table but having westerners in their establishment means attracting other customers, with the added bonus that the staff can observe us on the sly. We took photos of everyone and when they saw themselves they asked for a copy. We printed several out for the staff and had 2 photos laminated for display in the owners restaurant across the lane. We liked joking around and 'cook' always made my heart skip a beat as he pretended to put a whole cup of oil or a large ladle of hot chilies in to our dinner. Maybe next time we go back we will try the rat, snake or dog, or Not!
And so it goes...........................................................Next hiding away in warm, balmy Hainan Island. Until then Keep Smiling and keep your life free from the struggle between "immutable existential uncertainties". It was great to hear from all of you over the Holidays! Hope you had a festive Chinese New Year, January 29th and have a Happy, Healthy and Prosperous Year 4704. It was a loud and lively event here! The Chinese sure know how to have fun! Remember they invented fireworks! Take care & Keep in touch.
Love, xoxoox Nancy & Joseph
Fenghuang: find the row of family owned guesthouses with balconies right on the river. Upstream has the noise of traffic from the bridge - downstream has the singing "Wu Wee" woman for hours on end -45Y w/bathroom.
Dragon's Backbone: Above Dazai, Golden Dragon Country Villa (a new family run guesthouse)
Yangshuo: West Street Inn, across from the bus station - get a room 3rd floor, in the back with no street noise. (50Y with heat or AC) Friendly English speaking staff.
8 Yuan = $1.00 US