Monday, April 26, 2010

Trying Tibet

My first attempt to visit Tibet started back in August 2009. Faced with a 5 day work holiday, I couldn’t think of a better place to spend it than on the fringe of the Himalayas so I went to my internet travel agency and booked the tickets. A half hour later, I received a frantic phone call from the travel agency asking if I had the necessary travel permits - it seems that despite the fact that Tibet is an Autonomous Region, you can’t just hop on a plane and go there. Unless you’re Chinese. This surprised me a bit because I had just had a conversation with our local “expert” and he’d told me nothing about that. I told the travel agency to book the tickets and that I’d deal with the rest. And I went off to re-visit our local expert who had apparently felt that recommending hotels and doctors for altitude sickness treatment qualified as “helping me out.” On this visit he confirmed the need for a travel permit and added that you can’t have a travel permit without booking a tour.

I didn’t relish the idea of spending even a weekend with a bunch of tourists, so I went to the web and began to investigate agencies specializing in travel to Tibet. I found a host of them, and so I winnowed them down to the two or three most attractive. Shopping on the web for something like this is really hit or miss – you judge the capability of the company by the quality of their web site and hopefully some reviews written on web site such as Trip Advisor. The problem with the former is that any 15 year old in some foreign land with a computer and a credit card reader can call himself a “travel agency” and do nothing more than take your account number and buy a new motorbike. The latter, well my fellow travelers tend to be pretty dense when it comes to reviews complaining about important things like being unable log onto their Well Fargo account to check the interest on their savings account while staying at a $15 per night hostel in Urumqi. Rarely do you find anything useful. But given the nature of blindfolded travel, that’s all you have to work with so you take the next step and start some email conversations.

The next branch of the decision tree deals with your prospective host’s ability to communicate with you and their price. Communications are key, because if they can’t answer some specific questions via email then their English is probably not good enough to understand what you’re really after when the discussion gets down to brass tacks. Cost can be a good indicator and what I found with this little project is that the same package – get me at the airport, take me to the Potala and the Jokhang, drive me around the countryside, don’t force me to visit a Tibetan family and make joss sticks, and take me back to the airport – ranged for a tour of one, from $250 to $1500 with a statistical node between $650 and $800. You throw away the low end because you get what you pay for and you toss out the high end because they smell “sucker” and you get deeper into the negotiations with a couple in the middle. I spoke at length with one agent that fit all of my criteria and decided to use her.

One other roadblock was looming – somehow the travel papers had to be delivered to me. This was a deal breaker because first of all I don’t have a mailbox and second of all I can’t have things delivered to me at work. I was considering having it sent to a friend’s house when I hit upon what I thought was a brainstorm – I’d use a local travel agent and let her do the legwork. I called the gal up and she was more than happy to get things rolling. One minor detail, she wanted to book the tour as well. I agreed and put her to work. A week later, she returned with the package – it was well over $1000 and was through one of the more expensive companies that I’d discarded during my initial research. I thought about it for a while and decided that the difference – about $300 – was worth paying for ease. All we had to do now was wait – it was early September, I was planning on going the 2nd of October, and you can’t make an application more than 20 days before departure.

I went to work collecting and scanning the necessary documents – passport, residence visa and most interesting, a letter signed and stamped from my company guaranteeing that I was not a spy, journalist or government official. We were getting closer now but there was a storm cloud brewing on the horizon – the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China which happened to be on the 1st. The people in the travel permit agency were not terribly upbeat about my wish to visit a politically charged region on that particular weekend and so they began to drag their feet. What they were waiting for became clear a day or two later, the government banned all travel for the entire month. I cancelled my plane tickets, absorbing the fees and went back to planning.

With the end of my local assignment looming within the year, I decided in February that it was time to try once again. Starting again at the beginning, I re-opened my communication with an agent in Tibet and with the local gal, trying to see if there was a way to have my Yak burger and eat it too. I managed a nicely designed package at a reasonable price and I had the local agent working the angles on the permits and the flights. But again, a roadblock – the tour had to be booked through the person doing the permit, two could not do it. That $300 that seemed so reasonable 6 months prior didn’t seem so minor this time so I told the local agent to shelve the plan and I went to work on the internet agency. She’d do the permit, send it via express mail to a colleague’s home and I’d save the surcharge. Once again things were rolling; I made the plane reservations, fielded the frantic phone call for the second time and began to put things together.

A few more minor things popped up such as trying to figure out how to transfer the deposit between Chinese banks and the agent’s balking at sending the permit (she offered a dozen other ways from meeting me at the airport in Chengdu while I was transferring planes to leaving it at the hotel I didn’t have, also in Chengdu) but she finally sent it on its way and it arrived while I was home for a week visiting My Lovely Wife.

Travel is tricky in China, schedules change, flights are cancelled, and it’s far more hit or miss than it is in the west. To account for this, I never head out into the field without a lot of backup information. Usually I take the time to print out all the other flights available to and from wherever I’m heading so that if there is a problem I have enough information in hand to make some educated choices. That’s because when your plans go off the track here, they’re out in the field somewhere. No one speaks English, no one cares about you and getting an answer in an orderly fashion is impossible. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended up in a screaming mob of people just trying to figure out what they’re offering in ways of solving your problem. One the morning before my departure, I logged into my on line provider and had look at my options. For a reason completely unrelated to printing out my pages of options, I happened to take a look at my existing reservations and found that they’d all been cancelled. Except for the Chengdu – Lhasa round trip. In other words, the most impossible part to get was booked and the easy pieces were gone. I suppose at this point I had to ask myself if I was meant to go. Getting beyond that moment of weakness, I started scrambling, ordering the legs I was missing and having a friend order the next day’s portion because they would not accept a foreign credit card less than 24 hours before departure. Nice, create the problem and then punish me for it. I got it all together though and once again I was primed to go.

It was an early flight but I made it on time. Unbeknownst to me we had a stopover in my most favorite of cities, Xi’an and while it was factored into my timing, it was just another opportunity for a problem. We left Dalian on time and when we landed, staying on the plane was not an option despite it being a continuing flight. I left with the others and went up the jet way where I was met by a gate agent who traded my boarding pass for a green chit with a handwritten number on it. Now I gathered that this was my ticket back to the plane but I wondered how all those people were going to end up in the correct seats, this being a country where virtually no one understands the seat numbering system on planes. I got my answer a few minutes later – when they were confiscating the boarding passes, one person was handing out chits and another was writing the corresponding number on your pass. As I went by the gate, an agent pulled my pass out of a neatly spread out pile of boarding passes, each with its corner dog-eared up to facilitate grabbing. I was on my way again.

Flying to Chengdu was easy despite a late departure and my ever-shrinking layover time. I was expecting problems because I was now flying into uncharted territory, the place where my travel permit was required. Normally I’d go to a transfer desk and this time I went to what I thought was one. This girl did not want me spoiling her day so after much confusing conversation she wrote the range of check-in counters where I could get a ticket and pointed me away. It seemed that unlike every other airport, I had to go back out front and start over again. After running into 3 people from my department (in Chengdu on business) I got to the head of the line and surprisingly was granted a ticket. I left and went to security where things changed. It turns out that it was the wrong place – I was leaving from concourse C and this was B – but the response was far more ominous. The agent took my papers and yelled “Lhasa” whereupon a second agent came out from the frosted glass booth and sized me up. As it turned out, all that was happening was that they were bringing out the English speaker one of whose friends told me to “follow she.” This agent told me “go down there, you find it.” I tried for a bit more detail but got the same answer re-phrased, “you see it down there.” So off I went, wandering in a straight line until she was proven correct and I discovered the security station for the C concourse.

I played the line length game a bit and changed once only to discover that I should have stayed where I was. Except as it turned out, both of the choices were wrong and this became obvious when I got up to the desk and the agent told me to get in the Lhasa line. Now of course there was no line marked as such. Rather it was a third line to my right that had no entrance. It was delineated by black poles and red ribbons but there was no way in. Being at the front and considering that there was no one in it, I lifted the ribbon out of the pole and stepped through, handing my passport and permission letter over.

This agent was clearly groomed for the job. She didn’t speak English and she looked at the permit as though she’d never seen one before. There was some problem that the other agent had to translate but it was so insignificant that I can’t remember it now. The Lhasa agent took a couple additional scans of both of the pages, front and back, and just when I thought she was going to send me away, stamped it and handed it back. I was through! At least to the security check where I had a China first – removal of my shoes. That done, I was through.
It was now just a matter of waiting and of course the flight was late. I had a conversation with a couple of surly agents who clearly relished their jobs aside from the part about talking to customers. I asked if it was going to be an hour, he told me a half and I ended up being right.

Nothing was going to be easy today it seemed and the Buddhist monk in seat who (surprisingly) didn’t understand the seat numbering convention drove that point home. As did the conversation with the flight attendant concerning how Pepsi qualifies as a “cola.” The snack consisted of some interesting wheat crackers and a bag of Yak bouillon cubes. The view of the Himalayas made up for all of it though – cruising at 33,000 feet over 25,000 foot mountains is an amazing sight. I’ve seen the Rockies, the Sierra, the Cascades and the Coast Range. I’ve seen the Alps and the Appalachians. But I’ve never seen anything to stark, craggy, vertical and bare. Snow covered only where the sides were not so steep as to prevent it. They covered the view as far as I could see in any direction. Nothing like I’ve seen before.

We landed and I found my guide Tse Tan and driver Mr. Sung outside. Travel people are not allowed in the airport it seems. I was noticing the first effects of the altitude – walking up the jet way was a chore. It was steep compared to most, but not so steep as to merit my gasping lungs and pounding head. I was glad to get in the car and sit down. The airport lies a good 40 miles from town and the road is not up to the demand. It’s rough and it’s bumpy. But I tried to overlook it as we headed down a broad valley hemmed in by tall, sandy colored completely bare mountains. The road ran alongside the earliest bits of the Brahmaputra River, known here at its beginning as the Lhasa and later as the Tsangpo before adopting its Indian name and dumping into the Bay of Bengal some 1500 miles later. Chinese Mergansers and Mallards were bobbing in the calm pools while Greater Black-headed Gulls wheeled over the rapids. Big orange Ruddy Shelducks were just about everywhere.

The Buddhist influence was immediately obvious with shrines along the road and prayer flags decorating almost all of the willow trees lining the irrigation ditches. The top of every building had a stripped tree branch with flags, looking like a television antenna decorated for some festive holiday. Farmers were working the fields. The city kind of came out of nowhere, I found myself on a broad boulevard with the most unusual and ornate streetlights – like giant tulips fashioned out of yellow steel with white flowers. We drove into rush hour traffic and I was instantly struck by two things – not many cars and no tall buildings. Looking at it, you’d say you were in some small provincial town, not the capital of the province. While grimy on this, the Chinese of town, overall you did not get that same oppressive feeling you get from every other Chinese city. Crowning the feeling was the sky – blue with puffy white clouds. As we got into the heart of town and on the way to my hotel, I kept glancing up every street to my left until I caught a glimpse of what I had come so far and struggled to see - the palace of the Dalai Lama, the Potala. I knew I was here.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Lijiang After the Fact, Part 4. Leaving Reluctantly.

I’ve not been to many places in China that I was sorry to leave. I love Xi’an for what it is, home to the Terracotta Warriors, ancient history and its magnificent City Wall that is unsurpassed for a nighttime stroll. Beijing grows on me more and more as I get to know its intimate details. Shanghai with its hustle and bustle and sophistication is a great place to go and feel as though you are at the center of the modern world. But Lijiang said something entirely different to me, it said, “You really ought to collect Your Lovely Wife and drag her out here. You could have breakfast in the restaurant, accompanied to your table by your private greeter. You could sit on the patio outside your room and spend the morning reading under the shade umbrella before heading into the ancient town for lunch at the Prague CafĂ©. You could roam the streets, shop a bit and have a nice dinner under red lanterns followed by a coffee stop at the bistro overlooking the Old Stone Bridge. You’d then wander back to the hotel along darkened lanes under a sky that actually has stars in it.” It said, “You really ought to come back.” And I agreed with that voice.

Miss He was waiting for us promptly at 9:30 for the drive to the airport. Along the way we passed another Naxi town, Guan Yin Xia which I only spotted because of a group of tour buses parked in a circle as though anticipating an attack by Yak riding Tibetan nomads. This village sat at the bottom of a lush green valley alongside a couple of small lakes, spanned by bridges that were finely reflected in the still morning air. Small terraced rice paddies clung to the side of the hills. I made a note that we would stop here if we ever come back. We arrived on time after a short delay due to a bus accident. I paid Miss He, said my goodbyes and told her that she was my favorite driver of all time.

The departure wing of the Lijiang airport was very funny; from the four clocks on the wall telling the time in the capitals of the world to the flight status system which consisted of a dry erase white board parked behind the water cooler. I was happy to see that our flight was on time. The rest of the day was spent like any other traveling in China, moving between airports that increased a bit in complexity in Kunming and then a lot in Beijing. The flower market in the Kunming terminal was still in full swing and the air in Beijing was as filthy as ever, a mini-sandstorm, the junior cousin of the one that Aidan and I experienced a few weeks earlier. Our planes were on time and we rolled back into Dalian in the early evening.

I’d put this short jaunt among the most enjoyable trips I’ve had, inside and outside of China. It’s a wonderful place and I hope that it can maintain its charm and allure in spite of a new airport and the desire of every traveler in China to visit. Of course it will change, but let’s hope the differences are as mild as the cool mountain air on an early springtime night.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Lijiang After the Fact, Part 3, A Day of Travel Travails

We had arranged for a car to pick us up around 9:30 for a trip out to the base of Jade Snow Dragon Mountain, an 18,000’ massif to the north of town. There is a system of cable cars that climb up to various spots on the peak and we wanted to have a look so after realizing that the hotel car was far too expensive we hired a local service. “Kevin” the concierge told me the day before that the driver’s name was Mr. He so you can imagine my surprise when he turned out to be a she. Women drivers are very uncommon in China so I was a bit excited to see how we’d fare with one. Her entire name was He Xiao Wen and trying to completely understand the three parts of it was the basis of us getting to know how we well we would be able to communicate. She having no English and my Chinese being, well, my Chinese.

Leaving the parking lot we incredibly encountered a Smart Car convention that was basing a tour of the area out of my hotel. Miss He thought the cars were very intriguing and wanted to know more about them. I tried to convey the name literally, calling them Cong Ming Che, or “intelligent car.” She thought that was about the dumbest name possible. I’m not sure how true that was, but it was very, very odd to see this line of tiny cars pulling out of the lot on their way to who knows where. Who even knew that a Southwestern China Smart Car Association existed?

The highway left town after a couple of traffic circles and a re-visit to the roads we’d used the day before in traveling to and from Shu He. As the buildings thinned out I started to notice brightly colored parkas hanging on clotheslines in front of just about every establishment along the road. I was thinking they were so bad that I might have to have one when Miss He asked me if we wanted to stop and rent a couple. I was a bit perplexed by this and even more so when she asked if we were going to need “bags of air” or something along those lines given the translation. It turned out that the businesses along here have a side trade of providing coats and breathing air to the people heading up the mountain. People unaccustomed to the altitude and the cold. I assured her that we were tough guys from the mountains of America and that we would need neither. She wasn’t buying it and I suspect she thought we were about to be taught a big lesson by old man mountain. But she dropped the offer and drove on.

Eventually the road divided, the change being marked by a big billboard displaying Tibetan Mastiffs, those giant dogs of the Himalayas. Oddly there was actually a kennel right behind it with a few lonely dogs milling around in cages. The sales office must have been somewhere else.

We must have been pushing 9,000 feet about this point because I began to have those telltale feelings of oxygen deprivation – a little light in the head and a bit tight in the chest. It wasn’t bad, but I was glad I was sitting in a car and not riding a bike up the incline. We passed a Tibetan style shrine off to the right; the wind was picking up and blowing the multicolored prayer flags hanging about on lines. The trees were getting smaller and smaller. At a turnout we stopped to take a few photos back down the hill which was split by a small but deep gorge between the two sides of the road. The view wasn’t spectacular but the air was clear and cool and we were beginning to get that special feeling of being above tree line.

We came to the gate to the park and pulled up to a toll booth. I heard Miss He tell the gals in the tiny office that she had a couple of foreigners, so someone in there told someone else to go find the English speaking agent. We sat there for a full ten minutes while this fire drill ensued, lots of yelling back and forth between booths before the English speaker finally showed up and did little other than read us the brochure. We had a few options for riding the gondola so we picked one, paid our toll and continued on arriving after a short drive at the bus station where we would catch a tram to the departure point. It seems that the day was going to be a continuous set of handoffs between differing modes of transportation. The first bad sign was that there were about 100 tour buses parked in the lot. The second bad sign was that there was nowhere for us to park. Miss He solved that by just pulling up on an embankment near the entrance. After struggling through a conversation to inform me that she would be there sleeping in the car when we were done, she led us through a crowd of hundreds of people in matching baseball caps (the tour groups whose buses we’d passed) to the ticket office.

Here it became instantly obvious that this was not going to work. Before committing any money, I asked her to ask the saleswoman how long the wait would be and the answer was 3 hours. Now, in the best of conditions I am not great at waiting. But in a foreign country, where there is a very good likelihood that I won’t even hear our number called, and on a trip that is only 2 days long, and surrounded by hundreds of yammering tourists in a crowded and hot bus station, well, the math seemed obvious – I wasn’t waiting. I had a quick conversation with Mike and at that moment I was very glad to be traveling with someone of like sensibilities. Often these kinds of dilemmas can cause real travel friction because someone can’t deal with the options while the other person has their heart set on something. It’s always good to pick a fellow traveler who can decide quickly and who isn’t wed to every idea. It took us about 30 seconds to agree and head back to the car.

Now we had an entire day ahead of us and no itinerary. Pulling out of the lot and heading back down the road I spotted a big black lump in the road – my very first Yak in the wild! It was a big beast, slumbering just off the road in the scrubby bush. Tibetan Skylarks shared the field, doing their unique mating ritual of signing a chattering song while ascending in a straight line hundreds of feet into the air above their patch. We jumped out of the car and readied our cameras as we picked our way across the stony ground. For obvious reasons my mind went to those news videos of tourists being trampled by buffalo in Yellowstone for doing the exact same thing that we were doing. But this guy was so sleepy looking I pushed those thoughts out and forged ahead. He did finally lift up his big furry head giving us a nice view of the white blazed between his substantial horns. His personal space didn’t seem to have been violated; he just lay there dully staring at us. When we turned to walk away, he put his head back down and went back to dreaming of crisp springtime alpine meadows. Miss He told me that his Chinese name was “maoniu” or “Yak Cow.” I thought to ask why they used both names but decided it wasn’t worth the bother.

The mountain was there in the background shrouded once again in deep gray clouds. For some reason, the Jade Snow Dragon had no intention of showing itself to us. I took a few of the best photos worth taking and got back into the car.

There are four main sights worth seeing within driving distance of Lijiang. Jade Snow Dragon Mountain was a bust as we’d just discovered. The first bend of the Yangtze River is supposed to be something to see, the mighty river flowing down from the plains of Sichuan runs smack into a giant block of upthrust lava and being unable to go through it, makes a timid detour before continuing on its way to Shanghai. Near to this is the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. But “Kevin” the concierge had told us that they were too far off in the opposite direction to be a reasonable choice, so that left us with La Shihai, a big lake and locally famous wildlife refuge. So that’s where we headed.

The drive was straight back the way we’d come, making this the third trip down the same roads. Reaching Lijiang though we struck off to the west and climbed up and over a small set of hills on a really crappy road that was perhaps under construction. Cresting the top of the last one, we descended into a parallel valley and there was the lake set before us, ringed in tall snow covered peaks. The wind was howling.

We took a long drive down a short dirt road and pulled into a parking lot. A small group of men sat playing cards, stopping to stare at us as we got out of the car. One came over and talked to Miss He and she handed us off to him. He wanted to sell us horseback rides but we’d come for the famous pole boat ride out among the vast hordes of wintering ducks and geese. He agreed, took us to the ticket office and separated us from an unreasonably large sum of money. Tickets in hand, he pointed the way down an irrigation levee and sent us on our way.

Pony rides seemed to be the big draw here judging from the number of stocky little horses that stood in the fields chewing on marsh grass. A couple of groups of Chinese tourists came trotting by. One of the handlers accompanying them gave a big slap on the butt of one of the tourist ponies and it took off fast, its rider holding on for dear life. We walked on towards the lake until the path ended at a hut made of wooden poles and plastic tarps. A man and a woman sat inside cooking over a small fire. I asked “where” and he grunted and pointed to the left. Down at the end of another small levee a couple of guys stood poles in hand. Judging from their body language they clearly hoped that we were not coming to see them. When they saw we were, the quicker of the two grabbed a boat and took off, leaving his friend to deal with us.

We approached him, took a stab at a greeting and he stood and stared. I pantomimed a boat ride and his fried yelled at him from out on the pond to check our tickets. He took a look at them and rubbed them between his fingers as though these were the first he’d seen. Apparently satisfied, he turned his back to us, opened his pants and relieved himself as we stood waiting. Done with that chore he motioned towards his boat, we got in and were off.

The lake was huge and windswept and notable for its lack of waterfowl. There were perhaps a few dozen Coots and ducks here and there but nothing on the order of what I had hoped to see. We headed off to the south with the wind to our right, small waves lapped against the steel sides of the boat and sent some spray up and over the bow. A long line of partially submerged trees got me wondering how they could survive standing in this water. To our left, a Chinese couple in their very own boat provided an entertaining photo op.

After fifteen minutes he came about to the right and headed into the wind. It must have been tough work judging from his loud grunting and coughing. He seemed to be steering us towards a lone Cormorant out on a tree stump. The lake seemed to be very shallow; perhaps no more than a foot or two which probably explained these ungainly flat bottom steel scows they were peddling. Just as I thought we might be seeing that poor bird up close, another boat carrying some guy with a giant lens cut across our path and sped in that direction. Our sailor, taking the cue made a turn back to the north; it seemed that we’d paid for a nice square ride on the lake. I decided to call it quits and instructed him to turn the square into a right triangle and to take the shortest path back to home. He didn’t seem disappointed. We left the place with a feeling of disappointment and of having been robbed.

By now it was all of 1:00 and we had the car rented until 6. I was all for calling it a day being unwilling to accept any additional defeats, but Miss He insisted we come up with another destination. I didn’t have any ideas so I put it back on her. She suggested what sounded like “Bai Shi” which rang no bells with me until after a bit of serious consideration it rang clear – another ancient town. Having nothing better to do and still maintaining hope of a single success, we agreed. Naturally it meant driving for a third time on those same roads we’d already come down. After stopping at a China Mobile store so Miss He could recharge the minutes on her phone, we were on our way again.

Dayan in Lijiang is a polished retail gem. Shu He is just a bit less refined and Bai Shi is the most rustic of the three. Here, the balance between pastoral lifestyle and commerce strongly tips to the former. The buildings were clearly ancient and un-restored and people were going about their daily chores in spite of our presence. There were perhaps no more than 20 tourists in the entire village. Entering the town I passed a little old woman with a giant basket of Cilantro on her back. Walking out to the edge of town we passed another group of four women bringing the days harvest back to their homes. We crossed an ancient stone bridge and looked at the fields which extended from the village to the foothills off in the west. A big hawk sitting in a tree tolerated our presence for a few minutes before launching itself and wheeling off into the wind. I wanted a shot of the side of the bridge because it was one of those classical stone jobs supported by a semicircular arch. I stepped off the road in order to get a better angle and in doing so discovered the town dump – bring your trash to the old bridge and toss it off. Another arroyo put to good use.

I’ve encountered all manner of retail aggression in China from the grabby counterfeit peddlers in Shanghai and Beijing to the indifferent salespeople in Lijiang. I was actually pretty surprised by the laissez faire attitude of the sellers in the ancient town – they didn’t beckon and they didn’t strike up conversations unlike their city cousins. It was refreshing to be able to walk around without being beset by the offers of socks. Shu He was the same, but the level of desperation here in Bai Shi would put anyone in the Beijing Silk Market to shame. Here, with no tourists the force was strong. Wandering up and down the lanes we had ample opportunities to buy all kinds of things from brass Buddha to authentic Naxi batik. There were lots of embroidered items for sale along with the normal junk you find everywhere in China. Taking a right turn I had to run a gantlet between the competing forces of batik and embroidery. I didn’t want either so we headed on promising to return with no intention of doing so. At the end of this lane we passed through a gate and found ourselves on the grounds of a small temple. We wandered around for a couple of minutes, stopping to look in one building at an impressive 500 year old fresco depicting the life of Buddha. When we exited we were confronted by an angry young girl who was joined by a friend who asked what seemed to be a tour guide if we were part of his group of French tourists. He claimed no knowledge of us and so she turned on me and asked what we were doing there. I was flummoxed until I figured out we’d come into the exit without buying tickets. I apologized profusely and we left, unfortunately on the road we’d come in on, which meant we had to make good on our promise to return to the craft sellers.

I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for mementos and it didn’t take long for the embroidery woman to separate me from $15 for a beautiful Tibetan table runner. It was beautiful and with all such gifts I pick them up with that someone special in mind. Smelling money, the batik woman stuck next, dropping from 280 Yuan down to 100 and finally to 60. For grins I stuck to my guns at 50 and walked away. Her husband, sensing a gap in my resolve grabbed his infant son and put him under one arm and chased me down the street offering 55. I stayed with 50 for a block or two but the scene was so comical and he was so desperate that I finally relented and became the proud owner of a piece of Naxi batik festooned with what seem to be alien spacemen for the grand sum of $8. Our final negotiations had secured an additional profit of 80 cents.

Miss He dropped us off at the hotel just short of the originally agreed to time. Despite the problems and misses, we’d managed to fill the day with some interesting experiences. Before letting us out she made me the offer of taking us to the airport the next day at a reasonable flat rate. I agreed – she was a great driver and so much more fun than the guys we normally get. We planned to meet at 9:30 and sent her on her way.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Lijiang After the Fact, Part 2

Having not particularly enjoyed being lost the night before I resolved on this morning that I would take the time to really understand the way back to the hotel. So bright and early I went out the back gate and began to determine the way back. I started by walking the same path as the day before but stopping when I reached any important intersection that required a significant change in direction. This time I found the obscure quick left turn and didn’t end up dead-ended in the school. One point for a good memory, at least in the daylight. I walked past the spot where the children were playing in the canal, they’d been replaced by a man who was washing some sort of animal entrails, carefully dipping and squeezing the water out. His dirty pile was lying on the stone walkway, his clean pile which was draped over his right arm. A few yards upstream another man stood on the path, smoking a cigarette and blowing his nose farmer style into the water. We saw a lot of food being washed in the canals along with quite a few women doing their hair, often at the same time which resulted in many conversations when sitting down to eat. I stopped at one point to read an instructive sign that explained that throughout the village the water was often dammed to form 3 pools – the top for drinking, the second for washing food and the third for washing clothes. There were no pools here, just the flowing water and so I’m not sure how nose-blowing and meat washing fit into the grand scheme of things.

I came to the first intersection and made a mental note of the wall on the other side of the canal; it was white, trimmed in blue and at an angle to the direction of the path. The day before we had met up with a rough looking rat-dog who had followed us quite a ways into the town. Today there were two Tibetan Spaniels trying to impress a much bigger mutt that he didn’t belong in their neighborhood. I decided to call this spot “Dog Corner” figuring that putting a name to the place would help as well. I made a left and walked along to what I thought might be a good right turn and sure enough, it brought me back to the Mu Gate we’d seen previous afternoon. Giddy with success I decided to back track to the canal and in doing so gathered a couple of additional landmarks – a bare brick wall and a noodle restaurant. I was on my way to understanding where the heck I was and it only took retracing my way halfway back to the hotel. Turning around I started back again and passing the Mu Gate once more I took the main street out of the small square, interfering with 5 women taking each other’s picture. I quickly came to a crossroad that I recognized - the lane that led back to the main square. Turning around again I found myself staring straight at the Ming Gate I had made the mental note about while passing in the dark – this was the missed right turn that led to me being lost. I could have kicked myself because it was so obvious aside from the fact that I didn’t see it from this perspective on the previous walk into town. Ah well, at least I know it’s there now.

I met up with Mike and we decided to cover as much of Dayan as we could before heading out of town to another village up the road. In these early morning hours, the place was wonderfully empty, only a few other people were out enjoying the sunlight. In the main square a group of women in traditional dress were doing a folk dance in a big circle. Simple steps making the circle big and then small. It seems that every culture has this same style of dancing. We worked our way up and out of the commercial district and down into the residential areas where people were going about their regular lives, tending to the communal garden, cleaning their courtyards and shopping for the morning meal. I stopped to talk with a workman who was building an adobe wall, telling him that my home in America was built the same way. He stopped shoveling mud and looked at me like I was nuts. Beyond the main part of the town there was a nice walkway along one of the rivers that led to a park called Black Dragon Lake. Here, it is possible to take one of the most famous photos in all of China – a beautiful pagoda and a classical arched bridge on the far side of the lake, with Jade Snow Dragon Mountain in the background. Well, I got the first two pretty well but the mountain was completely concealed by haze. Another reason for a trip back I suppose. We eventually wound our way back into town and headed back to my hotel to get the concierge to arrange a car for a trip out of town on our next day. That deal made we caught a cab up to our next destination, Shu He.

This little village lies about 15 minutes north of town and the guidebooks suggest that it would be fun to rent a bicycle and ride it out there. But between the road that climbs, starting at 8000’, the traffic and the somewhat confusing route, I concluded that the guidebooks are barmy. A cab was much better, and this guy was smart enough to drop us off at the entrance which had no fee collector.

Like Dayan, Shu He is a traditional Naxi village; same architecture, same goal – sell crafts to tourists. The fields surrounding the town were well tended and filled with that same yellow flowered plant we’d seen so much of on the ride in from the airport. We wandered around for an hour or two, managing to bump into my friend’s wife and her friend from my town back home. “Small world” really doesn’t come close to describing things sometimes. We caught a gypsy mini-bus back to town which interestingly cost ½ what the official can had charged us for the trip out. Arriving, we decided to climb the only hill in town to a pagoda overlooking the ancient town. It wasn’t a particularly arduous ascent but I definitely felt the effects of the altitude. At the top is a very famous pagoda built recently in Ming style by the government at a huge expense. Lacking any real history or cultural significance, it was pretty nonetheless. The hill though is not about the pagoda, it’s about the view of the rooftops of the ancient town, and it was spectacular. We walked over the crest and down to a vantage point through a cool pine forest and along a path that was decorated by prayer “bells”, little circles of wood with wishes written on them that clatter in the wind. Birds sang in treetops in front of a panorama of hundreds of buildings with those unique tile roofs, stretching off into the distance.

Finding a way down this side of the hill was easy. Mike stopped to use one of the public bathrooms (which are abundant, free and incredibly clean) and while waiting I fell into a conversation with a Buddhist monk who was souvenir shopping with what was probably his mother and sister. I guess I never thought about it, but monks must have mothers too. Although for some reason that seems incongruous. We had the normal chat about where I was from and what I was doing there and how amazing it was that I could speak Chinese. Mom and sis finished their shopping and he wandered off. I took a chance and got a nice picture of him walking away.
It was dinner time so we went looking for a place to eat, deciding on a place that called itself a “wine bar.” It was well before the dinner rush, so we were about the only people in the place. We selected a table overlooking the canal figuring a mix of eating and people watching would be fun. For lack of anything better to do, the entire staff of 10 came and stood around our table in a half-circle helping us first to select a bottle of wine and then observing closely as I tasted it. I accepted the bottle and the wine steward decanted it into a carafe and poured about half a mouthful into each glass. I guess he figured it would go further, one swallow at a time. Following group observation of us using the menus, our orders were placed and the crowd dispersed.

We sat and sipped our wine and watched the tour groups passing by. One or two people in each group would stop and pretend to take a picture of the restaurant, but they were really taking pictures of us sitting there. I started waving and this caused more people to take our picture. It ended up being a nice way to pass the time waiting for the food, hamming it up for Chinese tour group tourist whose most cherished memory of their trip will be a couple of Americans flashing them the “V” sign from a restaurant balcony.

Continuing the tradition of over the top service, the chef brought our meals out. I had chose duck l’orange and was surprised to find it served with French Fries; it was delicious.

At night the restaurant district turns into a bar strip with loud pounding Chinese pop music, girls out in front of each place trying to coax you in and white helmeted riot police, one to a bar, making sure that harmony is insured. The noise was truly deafening, made worse so by one place that provided the drinkers with wooden blocks to pound on the tables in time with the music. Lots of Rap, or at least what passed for Rap in southwestern China – boys in baggy jeans, big shoes and baseball caps. Sitting and having a beer was tempting – the people watching would have been memorable But there was such a marked conflict between the serene nature of the ancient town and the bar strip that I just had to get out of there. We called it a night and headed back towards our respective hotels.

I have to say all my back and forth morning walking paid off immediately. I left the main square and walked past the Wisteria restaurant. Passing the billowing red and white construction tarp, I quickly found the right turn at the Ming Gate. I took it and headed back towards the Mu Gate and my next landmark but something caught my eye – the most amazing shop, a store front dedicated to dolls, all western and dressed in frilly Victorian garments. I had to have a picture and so I stopped. While standing there framing my shot a young boy of perhaps 8 years old appeared in the light. He was holding a pop gun and yelling at me in Chinese. He cocked the gun and fired a couple of times. I laughed at him, took the picture and continued on, mightily impressed by his defense of his parent’s store.

Past the Mu Gate I cut between the noodle shop and the bare adobe wall, taking a left turn and heading towards the blue trimmed white wall. Finding it, I took a quick right and almost stumbled into a huge pile of wet garbage. It was all vegetables and must have come from the restaurants in that block. One old woman was there with a flashlight pushing it around with her cane. A couple of dogs were working it over from the other side, explaining why I’d seen dogs at this spot on every pass. Suddenly it all became clear and I had the perfect night time landmark – Giant Cold Slaw Corner. Walk until you see the Slaw and take a right. I passed by and continued on, finding the hotel gate with ease.