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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Paparazzi and Gold Medal Pork


(Alaina)


Saturday Feb 27th
Hello from Lijiang!

Today was busy. I’d like everyone to know that I carry a notebook on my blog days so I can remember everything. I look very studious.

We checked out of our Dali hotel at 9:00 to see a few last sights before heading to Lijiang. Nancy, our guide, started the day by teaching us more about the Bai people and their traditions. In particular, she focused on social customs. Traditionally, young Bai people court through a singing competition in which the girls and boys compose short verses that they sing back and forth. Nancy sang a beautiful song in which men and women were compared to the sky and clouds. Apparently the suitors must not only have a beautiful singing voice, but also be very clever and quick-witted to fare well in the competition. When couples are matched, engagement is officiated with the man giving the woman a jade bangle and the woman giving the man a pair of handmade shoes, symbolizing a solid foundation. During the marriage ceremony, guests pinch the bride twice to bring happiness and longevity. As we learn more and more about these ethnic minorities, I’m stunned by the intricacy of their cultures. Every gesture of the hand and color of the dress has a fascinating history and symbolism behind it.

We got out of our van in the midst of a city just outside of Dali named Xizhou, which became a cultural center during the Cultural Revolution. Like the old sector of Dali, the buildings are all built and maintained in the traditional fashion. We walked through for a bit to see (as always) a huge array of purchasable: plastic cups of goldfish, Mao paraphernalia, cheap clothing, oranges. It seems that families often start small workshops or businesses in their homes. Walking down the road we were able to look right into a workshop that makes coffins and a what (we were a bit shocked to hear) was apparently a dentist’s office. Nancy told us that during this month, travel agencies pay the local government, which in turn distributes a small amount of money to all the families of the city. As a result, tourists are allowed to wander into any home they fancy and the owners are guaranteed to be welcoming (or at least pleasantly tolerant). We looked around a wealthy family’s house, the origins of which were 220 years old. Like most of the city, it has been heavily renovated since then, but with great care to preserve the original appearance. Inside the door was a spacious open courtyard, around which two stories wrapped in a neat square. There were three doors on each floor of each wall, and while I’m not sure if each led to a separate room, the house was clearly quite large. The next house we visited was twice as large, including two courtyards, but it belonged collectively to four families. Its original owner, a Nationalist General, fled in the 1940’s. During the Cultural Revolution the government leased it, and other lavish homes to the shared care of multiple families.

While touring the house, an older man asked to take a picture of us. He proceeded to line us up and move us around the courtyard as he took pictures. We were in his home (though he was paid to have us there), but it was still a bit uncomfortable. It’s been strange to be a picture attraction. Our past few destinations mostly attract (at least in this season) only Chinese tourists, so we’ve been garnering more and more stares. I guess to a degree it’s a taste of our own medicine, as we are also avid picture snappers. At the same time, we’re told to ask before taking pictures of local people, and if someone makes it clear that they don’t want their picture taken, we would never pursue it. We, on the other hand, rarely get this treatment. The other day we had a man literally shove his frightened-looking daughter into us and start shooting, and others have followed us when we’ve tried to move out of pictures. We’ve noted that it’s always the kids and teens who are most willing to approach us amiably and politely. I’m happy (and perhaps flattered in spite of myself) to comply when someone asks first, or at least makes eye contact and gives a smile, but occasionally people are (while I know its not their intention) surprisingly rude and… creepy. But I digress.

Two of the major agricultural products of the region are broad beans, which are very similar to lima beans, and rape seeds, which are made into cooking oil. The broad beans grow in thick patches of knee-high green shoots and the rape seeds grow on plants covered in bright yellow flowers; the resulting fields are stunning. We learned that, like many of the minorities of the South, in the Dali region the women work outside and the men work inside. Nancy said that the Bai women can always carry their husbands. We watched as a group of a couple dozen people harvested garlic, and in this case, the men dug out the garlic while the women and children cut the bulbs from the rest of the plant. Each plot is owned by just one family, but during harvest time friends and relatives all help each other and the favor is later returned. Finally, we visited a tie-dye workshop that is one of very few left to still use traditional techniques. The work was absolutely gorgeous, and we all bought some of the wonderfully intricate and colorful local craft.

Next stop was lunch! (In honor of the Olympics) Gold medal: fried pork that was very similar to the Chinese chicken fingers back home, but with thinner breading. Silver medal: soy bean fries. These get the silver medal because they were so interesting. They were almost like regular fries, but the inside was gooshy like tofu. As you will notice, there’s a LOT of fried food in this region, though these dishes are usually much lighter than their American brethren. Honorable Mention: a soup of mushrooms and a lake flower. It was mostly mushroomy but also slightly sweet. Not my favorite, but interesting.

I would describe some of the scenery during our three hour drive to Lijiang, but I was sleeping, so we’ll skip that. I love Lijiang! It’s very similar to the old part of Dali, but more compact and little quainter. The roads are cobbled in large dark stones, the houses are all traditional and low and the streets are lined in small colorful shops. Lijiang is over 800 years old its altitude is about 2400 meters. It’s a major market center of China, acting as the link between the highland (namely Tibet, Nepal, and India) and the rest of China through a path called the Tea Horse Trail. Lijiang reached its peak during WWII because air and maritime limits left the Tea Horse Trail as the best means of importing items into China. The middle-man role of Lijiang pumps the city full of everything imaginable, though there are three unique local staples: pu’er tea, snow silver (from the nearby Snow Mountain- apparently it never tarnishes), and pure goat wool scarves. We walked around the streets and got an eyeful of these, and countless other, wonderful handicrafts. We look forward exploring more thoroughly (perhaps with the wallets) now that we’ve gotten our bearings.

What happens now? Hint: it’s late… we’re hungry… dinner!! GOOD dinner! Gold medal: favorite pork dish so far (and there’s usually 2 at each meal)! Thin slices of pork (no fat) and vegetables in a fantastic thick dark chili sauce. I have no idea what was in the sauce so I can’t describe it well- nicely spicy and perfect! Silver Medal: lotus root fries. They had the taste of a potato/ sweet potato mix and the texture of a carrot, lightly fried to a hot crisp. I haven’t had a “fry” substitute that was so dense and hard, but they’re great!! Bronze Medal: sautéed sweet squash. They came in fat disks, cooked past crunchy but not yet mushy, dipped in a pleasantly spicy chili powder. Honorable Mention: meaty chicken hunks, carrots, cucumber, garlic, etc in dark red soy chili sauce (great drizzled over rice). The food keeps getting better! Mmm.

I like that dinner is at the end of the day, because I always get to finish these blogs writing about food.
Hope all is well at home. OH by the way it was beautifully warm and sunny today, probably in the 70’s midday. We thought it would be much colder here. HA Boston winter, I have escaped!

Okay. Tis all.
Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Bai-Buys


(Alex)

So long Jinghong! We are now in Dali, the Bai capital of China and an amazing city. Saying 'bye to John was sad for me because I really liked him not only as a guide but as a great person (not to mention it was good talking with a guy…). Getting here wasn’t so fun though…We arrived at the airport and went through security without a hitch, but soon after getting inside, our flight was delayed an hour and a half. Not fun. After that long wait, we finally boarded our Lucky Air flight to Dali in a packed 737. The flight was short, but also very bumpy, a little too bumpy. The pilot took off and landed shaking the plane so much that even I was uncomfortable (I fly a lot). As we began descent, we hit horrible turbulence and the runway was on a cliff, so I could not see where we were. This was bad for everyone! We landed extremely rough and some poor kid behind me wasn’t feeling too hot. He grabbed his barf bag, but unfortunately he missed and blew his cookies everywhere, yuck! But on that note, Alaina was feeling sick the last few days, but she is all better now.

So after the whole plane ordeal we got off, collected our luggage, and met up with our new Bai guide Nancy. Decked out in traditional Bai clothing, Nancy is a super eccentric and awesome guide. She has very good English and knows what we all like…already. It’s a shame that we are leaving her tomorrow for Lijiang, she is super cool! She sang us a Bai song on the way to Dali and introduced us to the world around the city and the cultural life. We went straight out to lunch at a nice place in the old city and enjoyed local food such as fish (very bony), fried sweet cheese, and an awesome noodle soup. After that we began our Dali journey at the Three Pagodas, an array of Buddhist temples and famous pagodas that run up a long hill. We were there at a very key time, because the mountain range in the back was so beautiful and magnificent, that all our pictures that we took are so cool that they could be in calendars or default computer desktops. One picture I somehow managed to snap had God rays coming through the clouds over the mountain, but at the same time, the length of the ray was the same exact length of the Temple in front of it, creating a very cool picture. I was quite proud with myself, but we all took outstanding photos.

After the two-hour tour, the true fun began. We drove to the South gate of the Old City and walked the whole length and then some. We stopped in some cool shops and saw some “real” silver and learned how to spot fake jade. It was quite helpful for future bargains and I got something myself. We then were allowed to go on our own for some free time until dinner so we all split up. I went off and found some amazing Chinese Wartime and dynasty memorabilia that I was so glad I found. I ended up buying as much Chinese stuff as my mother would in a Neiman Marcus markdown sale, which was really eerie to think about!

I continued down this small street elsewhere and was approached by a random Chinese lady who asked me if I wanted to smoke some illicit drugs. I was a little shocked seeing how this was in China, and that they would ask a foreigner this, but I said no gladly and continued on. Then this gold nugget of a street vendor hit me. I went up to these two old ladies running it and asked to buy this beautiful tapestry that was the main piece of their little shop. I bargained well and left them on a good note (I will get back to this later).

Dinner time came and Nancy happily joined us. We ate at a local Bai restaurant and had food that could only be fund in this area of China. Our favorites included a fried underwater vegetable that tasted and looked like a plantain, a potato cake that was very similar to French fries, and pine tree sprouts. It was a great dinner and we all enjoyed talking to Nancy about her little boy who is entering Kindergarten and her life as a Bai woman. As we were about to leave, we all shared what we had bought in the last two hours and I pulled out my tapestry. I guess the girls liked it and wanted me to take them to the place, so of course I did. We get there and the two ladies recognize me from before and love that I brought them business! I didn’t think I was going to buy anymore, but this is where parts of my mother took over. We were all talked into buying things we never originally wanted, but were very grateful we did in the end. All of our bargaining skills kicked in tonight and they truly paid off.

Today was awesome and I really look forward to getting to Lijiang as well. Goodnight America and you will hear from us again soon!

Diversity in Xishuangbanna


2/25/10

(Cassie)

After a restful second night’s sleep at the Tai Garden Hotel, we rose for another day of travel, this time to the western part of Xishuangbanna. We headed out for about an hour before reaching our first destination – a marketplace full of colorful fruits and vegetables as well as every sort of meat or fish one could possibly want. Needless to say, the air was full of pungent smells and the open square rang with the sounds of haggling, laughter, and life in motion. Most of the sellers were Dai women, wearing their traditional long and brightly colored embroidered skirts. In particular we stopped to admire some unusual watermelons, which were a golden yellow on the inside rather than the usual pink. John told us they were simply called small watermelon, or xiao shuiguo. After perusing the aisles and asking questions of several friendly vendors, we piled back into the van to continue on our way.

On our way to our next destination, we passed field after field of crops – mainly sugar cane and rubber trees. As we approached Bulang Mountain, the taller crops flowed into row after row of tea bushes. When we finally arrived at the Bulang village, we were surprised to see tons of children peeking out from behind the houses. Apparently, the One Child Policy does not apply to the Bulang people, so families will often have three or four children. We walked through the village until we arrived at the home of a family that seemed to know John, and went inside. I can’t seem to get over the fact that villagers will welcome strangers into their homes to take pictures and explore their lifestyle. I can’t even imagine the looks on my family’s faces if absolute strangers knocked on our door and asked to look around our house! Needless to say, we’d be perturbed and a bit suspicious. The Bulang house was brick, unlike most of the wooden Dai houses we’d seen the day before. Yet John informed us that the Bulang are generally poorer than the average Dai person. After resting in the family’s living room and admiring some pieces of paper written in Bulang script that are supposed to ward off bad spirits, we thanked the family and left to continue meandering through the town. On the way, we stopped to chat with some of the villagers and got to practice our Chinese! The villagers were incredibly friendly, and talked to us for at least a half an hour. Again I was struck by a stark yet simple difference between Chinese and American culture. The Bulang women kept expressing their admiration for how glaringly pale Lauren, Alaina, and I are. When we expressed (through John) that most people prefer to be tan rather than pale back in the U.S. the women just shook their heads and laughed at the crazy Americans. Finally, we stopped to visit another home – this time of a family that John knew very well. The young couple living there had recently lost a six-month-old baby. The child was born with a cleft lip and other unidentifiable digestion issues. John had brought in a doctor from the Red Cross, but the baby was weak and passed away. The story was upsetting, but made the people’s kindness even more precious as they had faced such sadness. As we drove away, John told us another interesting tidbit about the Bulang people. The women are in charge of harvesting the tea and sugar cane as well as selling the goods in the market, while the men stay home to watch the children and do any work needed around the house. Both the men and women take care of dividing up the money for the household.

After the Bulang village came lunch. We ate on a stone patio that was open on three sides to a view of the nearby rice paddy and children taking turns to ride a bicycle. We sat on small stools around a table made of bamboo – our first without a lazy Susan.

Poor Alex was pretty uncomfortable as the stools are only about six inches high and made for people far shorter than him. The food, as usual, was delicious. Along with several other dishes we were served spicy snap peas, some very sticky rice, and a warm, light soup with carrot sprouts. We also had our first taste of “Wahaha Cola”, which is apparently a famous knock off of Coke in China.

Next, we proceeded to village number two for the day, a Dai village another 2 or so kilometers down the road. We did some more exploring of the village, but we were headed for a house in which two women were making paper by hand. The pulp for the paper they were making was tree bark, which is mashed to break down the cellulose then mixed with water until it has a soupy texture. Then, mesh frames are dipped into the water. Finally, the frames are put into the sun to dry. When the soupy pulp has dried it is peeled off the frame and voila! Paper. After watching, Sandy asked for a go (as she makes paper at home) and strapped on an apron to give it a try. It looked pretty good to me, but according to her it was too thin. We purchased some of the homemade paper, which had a rough yet soft texture, and after snapping a few pictures made our way back to the van.

Then we went to a Buddhist temple belonging to the Theravada branch of Buddhism. The monks there wear bright orangey-yellow robes. The site we visited was called the Octagonal Pavilion. We walked up some stairs lined with painted statues of monks cross-legged and at prayer on either side. The architecture of the temple building was beautiful, and fading, intricate murals decorated the outside. Near the building was a majestically towering and knarled Bodhi tree. Every Buddhist temple in China has an accompanying Bodhi tree nearby. The trees are supposed to provide shelter and are seen as protection for the temple. Bells on the edge of the roof of an altar tinkled in the breeze.

Finally, we came to our last village in Xishuangbanna. This time, it was an Aikha village. The village, while brightly lit by the sun and the colorful flowers near many of the homes, was ghostly in that almost everyone was out harvesting tea. We went to our third (for Lauren, Alex, and I as we went to one yesterday after exploring the night market) tea ceremony in the home of a local tea seller and harvester. It was probably the most bitter tea we have tried so far. The issue is that if you empty your glass (which is small and roughly the size of two tablespoons) it is customary for the host to refill your glass. We were all stuck in a tug of war between being tactful and giving our taste buds a break. Alex, however, greatly enjoyed the tea and managed to keep up with John as they both downed “tea shots” one after the other.

After a long day, we returned to the hotel to relax for a couple hours before dinner. We were in for a treat…dumplings! Our first since arriving in China as we’ve been in the south and dumplings are usually a northern food. We were each given a plate of pork and onion dumplings and a small dish of a light soy sauce. Mine happened to have carrots in it as well. After heartily enjoying our jiaozi dinner, we went in search of ice cream and found it in the freezer of a nearby convenience store. I can safely say we were all very happy. Ice cream in hand, we walked to a nearby street that contained many shops selling minority goods. At this time, I’d like to send a huge thank you to Mrs. Springett, who keeps managing to find amazing things for us to do in every city we visit. On her recommended, we picked up a couple little trinkets and gifts, before making our way back to the hotel.

Tomorrow we leave for Dali. I’m definitely going to miss the beautiful weather (it was sunny and at least eighty degrees today) as well as the friendly local people and the vast store of knowledge that John seems to have. That’s all for today!


Along the Mekong


(Sandy)

February 24th

OK, so here we are at the Tai Garden Hotel…a very, very nice hotel and quite unexpected. We all thought the area and the facilities would be much less developed. The hotel has marble floors, a large glass façade and highly manicured landscaping. After an 8AM breakfast, we jumped into the “super van”…a 13 passenger vehicle that can easily accommodate a few stretched out sleepy travelers.

We are most definitely in the tropical part of China. There is vegetation everywhere that reminds me of my trip to West Africa. Lots of different kinds of palm trees and lush greenery lining the streets. Many of us were saying that we didn’t even feel as though we were in China anymore. Jinghong is known as “The Garden City” and is larger than I expected with lots of hotels, restaurants, stores and tourists. The incessant honking that we became accustomed to previously has nearly completely stopped giving Jinghong a much more calm and peaceful ambience albeit a busy place.

As we drove along the Mekong River, our guide, John, told us that it is considered the “Grand” Mekong because it travels through 6 countries. Beginning in the Himalayas in Tibet, the river finds its way to Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. He continued to list the many different minorities in the area giving us a bit of background information for each. The largest minority group is the colorful Dai…with a population of 400,000. They are known as the “water Dai” living near the water at the base of the mountains and using it to clean and wash everyday and to grow crops in the fertile soil. The Dai is the only minority with a written language. They follow Buddhism and are considered the “older brother” to “little brother” minority, the Bulang.

The second largest minority is the Aikha. There are about 200,000 “mountain and fire people” and are intent on always keeping their fires burning… at least an ember so they don’t have to struggle to make it again. While there is most definitely a language barrier, John was trying to explain something about the Aikha being poor fire makers, and originally getting their fire from lightening. The Aikha don’t like water and demonstrate great fear when it is necessary to “risk” crossing a bridge. (interesting combination, all fire and little water!) Originally the Dai fought with the Aikha but now they intermingle and marry.

“little brother” Bulang is the third largest minority. They are “mountain people” and highly respect and follow their “big brother”, the Dai. Next on the list are the Lahu and Miao. The Lahu are known as “hunting tiger” (although the Chinese tiger is basically extinct now). They are a shy group, not much communication, only nods, and will “hide” in their homes. There is also the Jinho minority. A group of about 20,000 that John described as short-sighted, also not communicative, not wanting to contact other groups…and incestuous. They drum to contact “God” in the sky.

The Hua people, according to John, are a dark-skinned group and believe that death is a part of life, so really do not worry about illness. They are good fighters and not very good cooks, making only porridges to eat. They are strong mountain climbers, good soldiers and are learning to produce rice and other crops...sooo…make less opium! There is another group called the Keren (sp?). They are considered the “long neck” people. It appears that they were not very civilized, forced women into slavery and could be very brutal. The women decorated their faces with tattoos for protection and wore long metal neck pieces to prevent being decapitated.

Outside the Buddhist Temple, our first stop of the day, we saw some Dai women making “guing tai” (sp?) a round flat lacey sphere of Kelly green seaweed. This fifteen-inch circle of thin wet hair-like vegetation will be dried and eaten at a later time. I tried making one and found that the feel of the slippery grass was pleasant! We later saw it sold in the Dai market along with meats, fruits, lots of chilies and peppers, splashing fish, and other household items like fabric. The Dai people are very warm and friendly…probably because there is a fresh abundance of food and they live near the water, in a place that affords them a little easier life.

On the road again, we passed large banana plantations, rubber tree farms, and were told more about the Han, White, Blue, Red and Hua Hou (flower-belted) Dai people. In Yunnan there are over one million Dai. While we are not here during the right time of year, we were told about the Dai’s Water-Splashing Festival. The people congregate at a very large man-made lake and celebrate by playing music, participating in boat races, and by “splashing”. Water is most definitely an important and much appreciated part of their culture.

Next we went to the Botanic Garden in Menglun Township. It is a large and beautifully maintained park with water features and indoor galleries dedicated to the minorities of the area and to the flora and fauna. There was one particular section with all the medicinal plants…a great place for Lauren to get a bunch of info for her senior project. John spent quite a bit of time translating the signs for her.

While I am usually not one to eat my way through a trip, I am getting a big kick out of the importance that food has taken on for the “Shanghai Five”. So here’s my take on lunch…one dish can only be described as a bunch of lemon-grass embraced by a contorted roasted fish. It actually tasted really good…just be careful of the bones. Another dish looked like a simple mound of corn kernels…but it was somewhat creamy and with a very nice texture and taste to each niblet (it’s hard for me to pick up more than one at a time with chopsticks!). There was a pork dish with peppers, soup with vegetables and tofu, an omelet with what we think was broccoli…and a stew with little 3-inch chubby fish (passed that one up). Our food authority, Alaina, was not feeling well (a bit queasy) so we did not have her effervescent descriptive dialogue during lunch. It was missed.

After lunch we drove through the rain forest nature preserve, admittedly a bit underwhelming. Alaina was a real trooper sitting in the front seat trying her best to put up with the gazillion hair-pin turns on what must have been the winding mountain road from hell for her. Kudos to Alaina!! When we got back to the hotel, she and Cassie and Alex rested while Lauren and I meandered into town. We stopped at what appeared to be a clinic just to say hi to the doctor and nurse at the doorway. We also made our way to a supermarket to buy Alaina some jello. It was an experience. The small plastic containers are paid for according to the weight. We also accidentally passed a school at dismissal time. It was interesting to watch them all buy after school snacks at outdoor venders. We got back to the hotel just in time for dinner at a Thai restaurant. After dinner, Cassie, Lauren and Alex went to a night market with John and I took a taxi back to the hotel to check on Alaina

It was a BUSY day. Best to all.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Genghis Khan Lives On - Who Knew?


(Lauren) Travel Day: Jianshui à Jinghong

Because we had a big travel day ahead of us, we got up and moving very early this morning. Alaina was especially thrilled by this morning’s breakfast. Apparently, our guide Murphy had informed the restaurant that we had really enjoyed the fresh fruit and dumplings with cheese frosting that we had been given the previous evening, so the staff kept bringing us huge plates of apples, watermelon, and breads. We found out later that the chef made the cheese sauce we got especially for us!

After breakfast, we headed to a nearby Doufu Factory. It turned out to be a fairly small, family-owned “factory,” and we were quickly made to feel welcome by the owners. Doufu, as it turned out, was a synonym for tofu, which we got to see being made by the women of the family. Doufu comes to the factory as a kind of mushy paste, about the same consistency as oatmeal. The women work to mold the doufu into little squares, and tie pieces of cloth around the squares so that the doufu will dry into a muffin shape. It was absolutely amazing how fast the women worked! Sandy tried her hand at making a doufu, which is when we realized that molding mush into squares is significantly harder than it looks.

The factory owners were also kind enough to serve us two of their special dishes. One was a milk-like dish, which the others said was good with a lot of sugar. The other, which I tried, was a soupy dish made up of the unmolded paste. While the four of us were eating, Sandy made friends with an elderly Chinese woman, who spoke no English but who seemed to enjoy their mimed conversation.

Once we had our fill of the doufu, we got back in the car and drove for about 3 hours back to Kunming. Although we had all learned to trust Mr. Wang, our driver, over the past couple of days in Yuanyang, I think we were all pretty relieved to find ourselves back on the expressway. Driving in China is always an adventure, but the rules are obeyed much more strictly on an actual highway!

Along the way, we stopped at a little Mongolian village. Apparently, the Mongols moved into the area when the Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan (grandson of Genghis Khan) sent soldiers to conquer the area. During the Ming Dynasty, Ming Emperors sent more soldiers in to attempt to kill the Mongol descendants. To survive, the Mongolians hid on a little island and so survived the slaughter. These Mongolian villagers were supposedly descendants of these Mongols who survived the purge. They have kept their traditional costume and language. We saw many pictures of Genghis Khan, as well as old textbooks, schoolbooks, and bizarrely, an old Chinese translation of a Stalin manifesto.

Once we returned to Kunming, we stopped for a nice, fairly typical lunch. Since our flight to Jinghong was late in the afternoon, we decided to spend our last few hours in Kunming touring a tea factory. We headed over to Kunming’s International Trade Company, the location of one of China’s most famous tea companies.

The tea company, aptly named Dr. Tea, has twenty-eight branches throughout China. It’s primarily based in Xishuangbanna province, which is where our next stop, Jinghong, is located. We met a young Dai Minority woman from Xishuangbanna, who explained the Yunnan province’s four most famous teas to us.

Famous Teas:

(1) Jasmine tea à good for eyesight (especially for computer strain) and liver

(2) Oolong (black dragon) tea à good for the stomach and for raising low blood pressure. Interestingly, oolong tea is usually served in a specific type of tea cup with a black dragon on it…when the tea is heated properly, the dragon turns from red to black

There is a specific way to drink oolong tea:

a. First waft the tea towards the nose

b. Use a circular hand motion to move the cup of tea from the nose to the mouth

c. Slurp the tea to show enjoyment

(3) Pu’er tea à good for sleep, lowers cholesterol, treats diabetes, and helps people to lose weight

a. Pu’er = most famous tea in the Yunnan region…should be drunk by swishing around in mouth

b. Pu’er is grown on trees in Xishuangbanna, the oldest Pu’er tree in Xishuangbanna is 1700 years old and 32.1 meters tall.

c. Pu’er tea is valuable based on age

i. 2 years old à not valuable, because it’s very bitter and has a lot of caffeine

ii. 6 years old à more valuable, because the caffeine has begun to fade away

iii. 10+ years old à very valuable, because all the caffeine has gone away and the tea has a very mild taste

iv. oldest Pu’er tea = 97 years old, sold for 1.6 million yuan

(4) Tian cha (sweet tea) à good for skin, digestion, facial beauty

a. Sweet tea is made up of rose and lychee


We left the tea shop, and Murphy and Mr. Wang took us to the Kunming International Airport. We said goodbye to the pair of them, and headed through security. Having arrived at the airport with plenty of advance time (unlike Guilin), we had a couple of hours to try various Chinese airport candies. The most bizarre were a type of powdered candy that crumbled as soon as we touched them, and we made an incredibly huge mess!

Our flight to Jinghong was quick and painless. Once we landed, we were all thrilled to see that it was about 70 degrees out, and it was almost seven o’clock at night! Once we got our bags, we met up with our new guide, John. Driving through Jinghong, we were surprised to find that it was considerable less rural than Yuanyang was!

We checked into our hotel, and headed out to dinner. John showed us to a little local place, where we got to try many typical Xishuangbanna foods. As John told us, Xishuangbanna food is very spicy, which was evident in our selection of foods. We had an incredibly spicy kind of tofu, which was so hot that many of us couldn’t taste the rest of the meal. We were shocked to learn from John that the tofu dish was only considered mid-level spicy in Xishuangbanna culture! We also had a delicious dish of a mashed-potato like substance, pumpkin pastries, pork legs, cucumbers, and rice. We also had an incredibly delicious passion fruit juice – it was so thick and creamy!

After dinner, we returned to our hotel for an early evening. We’re looking forward to two very intense days of touring the Jinghong countryside!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Mountains of Rice!


(Alex)

February 21, 2010

Today was amazing! We got to wake up a bit later than usual (nice change of pace) and we had a pretty decent breakfast as well. Our hotel was also surprisingly awesome for a mountainside city. Being that we were in a very remote location, the city was relatively large and sounded like NYC at nighttime! The windows were not soundproof at all and during the day and parts of the night we could hear honking and loud conversations in Chinese constantly filling the ambient sound.

Yuanyang was full of awesome surprises including the Ocean of Clouds. Since we were so high up, when you look down the mountain and into the distance, the cloud layer forms an amazing sea-like spread that is beautiful. There was one mountaintop in the middle of the cloud ocean that looked like an island! After viewing this awesome spectacle of nature we traveled to the rice terraces and admired how much labor went into making these fields. We just kept seeing rows and rows of rice terraces that almost looked natural there were so many!

A few kilometers down the road from the terraces we visited was a local Hani minority village. The road was a half-mile of a pretty significant decline and the Hani people were coming up and down this road carrying wood and other supplies in a constant flow. Once we reached the village we saw that the place was under construction to help it become more of a tourist sight, so it was a real treat to see the village in its raw form. We toured the village for a good hour and visited the various rice and water mills along with a school that was constructed to help the local children with their education. The school seemed rundown, but also in use, which was good to know seeing how this area of China didn’t seem to have very many school areas. Also in the village were plenty of farm animals running around, but they all minded their own business. There were some very big pigs with their young just sunbathing on the path, which was extremely funny and adorable to see. We saw the Hani rounding up their chickens, tending to their rice fields, and playing basketball.

Now the fun begins; we began climbing back up the road we came down and it proved to be pretty arduous. Cassie raced up it pretty quickly with all four of us shortly behind her. Once back up top we spent twenty minutes browsing and bargaining at the local market for various trinkets and beautiful Hani scarves/handbags. Right across the street was a restaurant where we stopped for lunch, but compared to the other places we ate at, it was nothing special, but nonetheless good. At his point we were all tired from trekking all morning so we headed back to the hotel for a quick rest and nap to recuperate for a sunset photo shoot at Tiger’s Mouth Rice field.

This absolutely stunning rice terrace collection spanning whole mountains was a huge stop for tourists and professional photographers alike. Immediately after pulling up we were flocked by local Hani people trying to sell us everything and anything! It was crazy how persistent they were to sell us postcards! Despite all of this, it was still a great place to visit. There were awesome spots to take photos, but so many people flocked there it was really hard to find a place too, but we eventually did. The sunset was gorgeous overlooking layers and layers of rice terraces and the effect it created made the fields look like pieces of stained glass scattered everywhere. It was quite the view.

Trying to leave the fields was a whole different story…The traffic for a mountain road felt like the Mass pike during morning rush hour, but somehow our driver, Mr. Wang, navigated us out and back to the hotel safely. His driving skills have proved invaluable on the streets of China. Overall, today was one of our most enjoyable days and especially so for me because I am not at all jet lagged anymore and the rice fields are something that everyone should see at some point in their lives.

We head to Jianshui tomorrow and we are all looking forward to it, and the free internet access. We will get back to you soon.

Monday, February 22, 2010

James Dean Lives!


(Alaina) Feb 22

Hello America!

We started today by saying goodbye to Yuanyang and driving three hours to Jianshui, which is on the way to Kunming. Descending through the twisting mountain roads proved just as adrenaline-boosting as the climb up, though by this point we’re (mostly) confident that the driver is a godsend, not a madman. Up top the sky was perfectly clear, giving us a beautiful last view of the rice paddies. Further down the mountain we were enveloped in thick fog (visibility=0), and then we broke through to the clear sky and warm sun (t-shirt weather YAY) of the ground-dwellers. As we drove the soil turned red and dry, and we began to see more and more small squares of crops- wheat, beans, cabbage, tomato, corn, onion, and probably much more.

Just outside of Jianshui we stopped to tour Swallow Cave. Because of the natural beauty and harmony of the cave, the area has long attracted the followers of multiple religions. First we passed three Daoist tombs: one of a man who’s considered a hero of sorts for achieving the highest level of spirituality, and two of his disciples. Just after the Daoist tombs was a Buddhist shrine featuring a large gold Buddha statue, surrounded by people waving large bundles of flaming incense. Past this there was a Daoist shrine of the major gods (representing Heaven, Earth, and Water), followed by another shrine to Confucius. Apparently the three religions generally coexist peacefully, and are often found right next to each other like this. It was interesting to see so many people practicing their faith and honoring the figures they live by, drawn together by a mutual appreciation for a beautiful natural phenomenon.

The cave itself is a huge tunnel situated over a river. It has become famous because every year hundreds of swallows come to roost in the crevices of the ceiling from January to August. The opening of the cave was quite beautiful. The turquoise river disappeared into the yawning mouth of rock, the cavernous heights of which were speckled with the darting bodies of dozens of swallows. While the visit started very well, in my opinion the temples and initial view were the only worth-while sights.

We entered the cave and sat down to see a “show,” which turned out to be a man climbing along the walls of the cave 50 meters up to hang a banner. At first I thought the event must signify something, but no, it was just a tourist spectacle. I felt a bit uncomfortable watching a man risk his life in an unnecessarily dangerous activity just for entertainment. Inside, the cave was much less spectacular than the one we saw in Guilin. The river added a cool effect, but it was basically a giant tunnel with drippy oozy stone formations extending from the walls and ceiling. It was sparsely lit until the tour guide activated multicolored lights and bursts of music, which aren’t on all the time because they don’t want to disturb the swallows. It’s my prediction, however cynical, that the birds will stop coming as the tourists multiply and the gimmicks become more intrusive. We stopped a few times to see formations that supposedly looked like women, grapes, elephants, and tigers (the Chinese are more imaginative than I am), and trekked up and down multiple large flights of stairs. We tried some soup made from dates and the nests of the swallows (if you put it in soup, anything can be eaten?), which was sweet and actually pretty good. Then we took a boat back to the opening, which I appreciated because my quads are admittedly sore from several days of intense stair climbing. All in all, the two-hour tour dragged on (as my feet dragged on), and if future groups visit Jianshui, I would not recommend it.

We drove into the city of Jianshui, which is busy but smaller and less polished than Guilin, to have lunch. My favorite was a chicken dish with peanuts, cucumber, and carrots, all with a mild soy sauce flavor. Lunch and dinner always include a big bowl of soup, and this one-- shredded egg and green lettucey vegetables in a chicken broth-- was about an 8 on the soup scale. Soon, however, we were distracted from our food by a gaggle of young boys gathering at the window. Our fan club grew to 7 or 8 kids, who giggled and pointed at us for a good 40 minutes lunch. There was one older boy who we named James Dean, and he seemed to be the ring leader. It was when he began orchestrating a series of hand gestures, including blowing kisses, that we realized the transition from innocent to mischievous had begun. We did manage to catch them off guard when Alex blew a kiss back, but all in all, James Dean clearly had the upper hand as he was on home turf. When we left the restaurant they followed us for 15 minutes or so, giggling when we made faces and scattering when Alex moved towards them. It was a deep friendship.

From there we walked to a large Confucian temple. We learned a lot about Confucianism, which emphasizes harmony and family relationships, and places great value on the five virtues: benevolence, respect, wisdom, trust, and justice. The buildings were all beautifully constructed and decorated. Most distinctive were the traditional triangular roofs with the wings at the corners, covered in colorful ceramic tile-shingles. There were a lot of ornately carved wood and brightly colored images adorning walls and doors. Inside the buildings were various shrines and figures of Confucius, his family, and his top students. I was surprised to see people praying to and worshiping Confucius, because I always thought Confucianism was more of a philosophy than a religion. Apparently Confucius is often regarded as a deity of sorts and worshiped just as the major figures of any other religion are.

We checked into another hotel (very nice, as always) and had some time to relax before dinner. (Yes, we are always eating.) This was a collective favorite meal. It was a bit different because we were given a bowl of fresh cucumbers/carrots, a bowl of oranges/ apple-pear things / watermelon, and a bowl of plain peanuts. Usually everything is always cooked, so we had missed the simple raw ingredients. There was also a delicious fried chicken dish in an orange sauce that was sweet and a bit vinegary, and a cylindrical white vegetable that tastes a bit like the baby of a thick asparagus and a water chestnut. Finally, the crown jewel arrived: DESSERT! Sometimes meals end with watermelon, but until this they never included anything that could be considered dessert by American standards. We got a plate of sticky bread buns, half of which were fried. The bread was spongy and slightly sweet and the fried ones were piping hot and had a fantastic crunch. The rolls on their own made me very excited, but then we discovered the dipping sauce: very smooth and silky, tasting like a mix of cream cheese frosting and the frosting on cinnamon rolls. YUMM.

On that very happy note, I end my blog. Given that I’ve just talked about dessert, I don’t feel I need any sort of wrap-up.

Thanks for reading,

THE END

The Long and Winding Road


(Cassie)

Today was the longest and one of the most interesting car rides I have ever taken. We left our hotel, made a quick stop at an ATM, and headed out to our first destination – the Stone Forest. The Stone Forest used to be part of the ocean around twenty-seven million years ago and were formed by tectonic movement and eroded by the ocean. What remains today are thousands of pillars of limestone ranging from about ten to fifty feet high. The park that houses the forest is run by the Yi people, the most populous minority in China’s Yunnan province. The Yi were everywhere in the park in their colorful cultural garb. The unmarried women wear unique hats that have two triangles (one on either side). According to Yi custom, if a boy wants to marry a Yi girl, he touches the triangles on her hat. He then proceeds to spend three years doing hard labor for her family. If she still wants to marry him at the end of the three years, the bride-to-be’s family throws the couple an engagement party and the wedding plans proceed from there.

The Yi, dressed in their brightly colored costumes, played the roles of tour guides and vendors at all of the little touristy shops surrounding the Stone Forest. The stones towered above us as we walked into the park. The sides of the rocks were striated by years of erosion from the wind and rain and the sea that once covered it. The stones were beautiful as the wonderful sun dappled their sides. It was hugely crowded, but every once in a while we would find ourselves isolated in a circle of majestic stones. At one point, there were two stones that each came to a point near one another and about five feet off the ground. Each person had to fit through the stones by fitting their neck in the space between them. It was fun to watch Alex awkwardly try to squeeze through the space, but eventually he managed. We all got through. After a lovely morning in the sun we piled back into the car for another five hours of driving. As the car rolled along the highway, honking and passing with abandon, red-soiled hills flowed into greener, taller mountains. It wasn’t as green as it usually is, as Yunnan is facing a drought, but as we continued southwestward the wildlife began to be more and more exotic. We passed palm trees, banana plants, and sugar cane. About an hour from Yuanyang we stopped at a small roadside produce stand run by a local branch of the Yi. It was a breath of fresh air to see members of a minority dressing in their cultural costume for themselves rather than to garner attention from tourists. After sampling some of the best pineapple I’ve ever eaten and waving to some adorable, barefoot children, we continued upward toward our final destination.

The van continued to climb upward throughout the rest of our trip, whipping around blind curves on the wrong side of the road. As we went higher, Alaina began to slightly hyperventilate. She was also suffering from a violent case of hiccups, which sent Alex into a fit of giggles that lasted for most of the rest of the ride. Finally we arrived in Yuanyang, which was larger than expected and precariously perched on the mountainside 1600 meters (just under a mile) above sea level. We ate dinner and proceeded to our hotel. We were really lucky to have wonderful weather (it was about 75 degrees during the middle of the day) and the sky was clear enough to reveal the moon for the first time since we arrived here about a week ago.

Until the next time…

In Need of a 36 Hour Day!


(Sandy)

February 19th

All is well in Guilin! We saw the sun today for the first time since our arrival. It felt sooo good…we all wanted to just bask in the warmth like turtles on a log. We were up very early this morning in Guilin in order to visit Elephant Trunk Hill, Reed Flute Cave and Fubo Hill prior to being dropped off at the airport. The story behind the Elephant Trunk Hill (a large hill that resembles an elephant drinking from the Li River) goes something like this – there was an elephant living in an area with people who did not want him around. An army was sent to shoo him out but the elephant won the battle….eventually a general stepped on his back and thrust a sword into him…the elephant would not budge and remains there to this day. On top of the hill there is a small pagoda symbolizing the sword. The area has become quite a park and also includes raft rides and a small island with peach blossom trees…evidently THE place for Chinese romance!

Reed Flute Cave is the largest cave that I have ever trekked through, and I’ve been in a few. It is so big that weddings are sometimes held inside the large natural “hall”. The hall is about a half-football field long and quite wide. Stalactites and stalagmites are beautifully lit up with intense colored lights. A good imagination and a sense of humor help to reveal a variety of characters, creatures, and items that can be seen in the grand and highly textured walls…lions, fruits and vegetables, and even JFK! I wonder if Elvis is here too??

Fubo Hill…aaaah, Fubo Hill….about 600 steps (yikes) to the top of this very steep and compact hill monument dedicated to a general with the same name. At the top there is a nice panoramic view of the whole city of Guilin. I was just hoping that I was NOT going to confirm “Dr. Lilly” and the previous days diagnosis suggesting that I should care for my heart!

The “Shanghai Five” group dynamics have sorted out into some interesting roles. Cassie has become our Navigator – usually the first to point out which direction we should be headed in (a good attribute to have if her GPS system ever fails when she is flying helicopters). Alaina’s enormous zest for all kinds of exotic foods has earned her the role of Culinary Advisor…. describing her way through every meal and challenging some to “just take a taste”! Lauren is an amazing Director of Free-Day Activities. Along with her invaluable and “secret” contact, we were made aware of “Dr Lilly” and The Cooking School…both lots of fun. At first, Alex was the Room Surveyor, but now, has morphed into THE Storyteller...keeping us all amused and informed. All have roles as the Americans that the Chinese like to stare at and have their picture taken with. And me…well….the other day, Alaina said to me, “You make friends with everybody”….I guess I’m the one who tries to strike up a conversation with anyone who wants to chat, young, old, Chinese or otherwise. A smile, a nod, and a nihao go a long way here…and that “disconcerting stare” that we get melts into a big Chinese smile when approached. By the way, Zhu Laoshi, you should be very proud of all your students!! The third year kids, in particular, are amazing.

China has changed quite a bit since the last time I was here in 2001. Although development is booming (and there are COLD drinks), for me, it is still a country of contradictions. The speed with which change is occurring simply exaggerates the contrast between the ancient and the modern.

The pace has been pretty hectic and there are moments when I feel like we are taping our own episode of The Amazing Race… but it’s all good. There is sooo much to see, experience, taste, and photo that a 36 hour day would work well on this adventure. All the best, Sandy

Sunday, February 21, 2010

To market, to market to buy a fat pig, rabbit, snake...


(Lauren) Yangshuo Day 2

Alex, Sandy, and I headed out early this morning to cruise West Street once again. There, Alex tried haggling for the first time and picked up a traditional Chinese landscape painting and two pairs of chopsticks. The three of us then headed to a small shop selling bamboo carvings and tested the limits of our Chinese. The seller was a very nice, very friendly young woman who only spoke a little English. We communicated in a mix of Chinese, English, and miming, each of us exclaiming excitedly every time we managed to understand what the other was saying. We spent nearly a half an hour at her store, and drew a fair amount of attention. Westerners are a bit more of a rarity in Yangshuo, so we’ve found that we’re more of an attraction to the locals than we were in Hong Kong or Guilin. Kids especially are eager to come up to us and test their English, and we have fun trying to reply in Chinese.

After finishing up with the bamboo carving seller, the three of us went back to the MeiYou Café, where we had eaten the previous night, to meet up with Cassie. (Alaina decided to remain in the hotel, feeling a little bit sick). We wanted to check out an herbal tea shop that we’d heard about, and asked a local woman for directions to 46 HuiGua Rd. Unfortunately, the woman spoke no English, and didn’t actually know where 46 HuiGua was. After walking around both West and HuiGua streets and asking several police officers and shop owners for directions, the woman decided that 46 HuiGua was not to be found. Naturally, we went down the road a little bit further, and found the store we were looking for immediately! To complicate matters a little bit more, the store owner, Dr. Lily, was out of the shop.

Thinking that Dr. Lily had taken a lunch break, we headed to Cloud 9 Restaurant, rumored to have the best food in Yangshuo. Cloud 9 was the first restaurant we ate at that we felt had really traditional Chinese food – nothing Americanized! Cassie was daring, and ordered us double-cooked pork, duck, and stuffed river snails. We all tried the snails, even though Alex was incredibly disgusted (and is still shocked and traumatized).

After lunch, we went back to Dr. Lily’s store. Dr. Lily was there this time, and gave us a quick introduction to the properties of medicinal teas. She also did physical examinations of each of us.

Final diagnoses:

Cassie and I were told we had “too much fire in the heart” as a result of too much stress. Because Cassie also had “too much fire in the liver” she was told not to eat deep fried, fatty, or spicy foods. She was pretty disappointed by her new dietary restrictions, but I was happy to hear that to deal with lung issues, I should eat more cinnamon! Less happily, I was told I didn’t have enough yang energy in my body (need more sun) and a digestion that indicated impending sickness (I’m hoping she was wrong about that).

Sandy and Alex were told that they have weak stomachs and spleens, and that their bodies hold too much phlegm. Alex was told to get more sun to introduce more yang energy into his body, and to eat less fatty food. Sandy was told to watch out for an impending cold. We were all very interested in some of the medicines we could see on the shelves – snakes and fetal rats were pickling in jars as cures for arthritis!

After leaving Dr. Lily’s shop, we went back to the hotel to pick up Alaina in time for our cooking class at the Yangshuo Cooking School. Amy, our teacher, picked us up from the hotel and started our lesson by taking us through the local farmer’s market. We were the only Western people in the whole market, so this was the first part of the trip where we were really conscious of our status as tourists.

The farmer’s market was made up of several large warehouses, filled with people selling all kinds of goods. There were many kinds of fish, chicken, and rabbits. It was a little hard for us to see those animals, because as Alaina commented, “they’re so cute and alive and could be in a pet shop.” Many of the locals were killing and gutting these animals as we watched, which was an interesting experience – I saw several chickens being strangled, and a couple of fish being gutted, which was a bit gory. Of course, there were also many exotic types of foods that we would never eat in America. We also saw dried rats, dogs hanging up to be sold, the feet of an unidentified bird, and water snakes being speared on nails and cut up. We were really impressed by the market, which we thought was a great insight into the local culture.

Once Amy had bought what she needed from the market, we drove to the Yangshuo Cooking School, which is located a few minutes outside of Yangshuo. We were treated to the closer view of the beautiful mountains nearby, and got our first glimpse of a more rural China. It was amazing how quickly the buildings started to look a bit dilapidated once we left Yangshuo proper. We soon arrived at the cooking school, which was a very picturesque rural home. Amy and her coworkers served us some tea while we got settled in, and then it was time to cook.

Over the course of several hours, Amy taught us how to make a full course Chinese dinner. We made “Egg-Wrapped Dumplings,” “Steamed Chicken with Mushrooms,” “Eggplant Yangshuo Style,” “Stir-Fried Pork with Vegetables and Oyster Sauce,” and “Green Vegetables with Garlic.” All of the dishes were very simple to make (I can’t cook, but even I could manage with help from Amy). Best of all, we got to eat our creations for dinner! Consensus was that the egg-wrapped dumplings and eggplant Yangshuo style were especially delicious (although we thought all the food was great!) The women of the cooking school were also very fun to learn from. Other than Amy, they spoke very little English, but they were able to mime instructions to us, and they were gracious hosts. Everyone left the Yangshuo Cooking School considering it a definite highlight.

After returning to our hotel, we decided to go to bed a bit early, since we’ve got a very long day tomorrow. Next stop: Kunming.