Thursday, January 6, 2011

Welcome 2011!

Today's Alarming Statistic:


The number of massage parlors and hair salons shut down for prostitution in Shanghai this year.

How’s your 2011 going so far? I hope you had a relaxing holiday and got a chance to see family and friends. Now go get a cup of coffee and settle in. Sorry this one is so extremely long!

We left Beijing December 22nd for two weeks in Yunnan Province. To be honest, I was of two minds about going back there for a couple of reasons. You know how hard it is to recreate a magical time you’ve had somewhere and then you go back and it just isn’t quite the same? I wasn’t certain we would have as good a time in the small village of Xizhou, staying at the Linden Centre, as we did last year. Also there is always the nagging feeling in the back of my mind; “shouldn’t we be having an entirely new adventure in an entirely different area of China?” So it was with some trepidation that I set out on this trip.

There are several major draws to this area. The A Number One reason for Ivy and Greta is the Dali Christmas Eve “snow” fight. I described it last year in an earlier Blog entry (January 2, 2010) so you can see photos there. Here are some new ones from this year.

All this white stuff on the ground is fake snow, blown from a machine on top of a nearby roof.

Just to jog your memory if you don’t feel like looking back to last year, this is a huge free for all of thousands of Chinese (and a few westerners) running through the streets (or very slowly being moved… pressed shoulder to shoulder with a mob of humanity). Each individual is armed with at least one can of spray “snow” or Silly String and many people (like Ivy and Greta) have around 20 cans each. No one needs to worry if they run out of ammo; there are cases and cases sold every 20 feet or so.

Last year Eric and I ran the short distance from where our driver dropped us to the Tower Café where we climbed to the third floor and had a drink in safety and serenity. This year we went with a group of the instant grown up friends we made at the Linden Centre and Brian Linden, our host. Brian is a fun-loving guy and very charismatic so before I quite realized it I was being handed a bright yellow poncho and two cans of snow. We had planned to head to the Tower, but Brian took us “the long way”. It was just long enough for my entire body to be drenched in “snow”! My glasses were covered and my hair was dripping. I think Eric got it even worse. Eventually we made it to the safety of the tower where we washed the chemical snow from our hands and glasses and headed upstairs to wait for the kids. Here they are after a long night of snow fighting!

We met a really nice Welsh family living in Hong Kong for 15 years. They have two daughters who bonded nicely with Greta and Ivy. There was also an American family living in Singapore with a son in college and a daughter, 15, who is an expert yo-yo aficionado. Ivy followed her around and learned all the tricks in two days. That’s the great thing about the Linden Centre – you meet a lot of new people, make good contacts, and can really relax there. The kids spent the entire time without computers. They play Twister, card games, yo-yo, go bike riding – all the old fashioned stuff of MY youth. It makes my heart sing. And the best part is they are already clamoring to go back next Christmas!

This year we were very lucky to be visited at the Linden Centre by some Mung people who live several hundred miles east of Xizhou. They travel every few months with all their textiles on their backs to sell things to the guests at the Centre and also at local markets.

It’s amazing to see these old old beautifully embroidered and intricately done fabrics laid out on the concrete courtyard and the Mung ladies walking on top of them! The colors were so spectacular we couldn’t resist and bought a few things. One is a red and green dragon which will become a Christmas decoration for sure.

Once we had looked through everything we dispersed and Eric went to read in the sun on the terrace. I hung around and soon the Mung ladies brought out some special things they were offering to sell Brian Linden, the owner of the Centre. What caught my eye was a set of Yao ceremonial Taoist paintings. There are 14 in this set and they depict the gods of Taoism (Daoism) and their attendants, the judgment of man and punishments for bad deeds, etc. They are absolutely exquisite and have an unusual dragon border. These scrolls or paintings are used in Taoist religious ceremonies when they are hung up around the walls of a room, but other than that they are kept rolled up and that’s why these particular ones from 1850 are still intact.

I ran up to get Eric to come and look and we both really fell in love with them so now we are the proud owners of the set! Each painting is around 4 feet long by 2 feet wide. If we were planning to ever actually display them we’d have to frame them under a special glass to keep the colors from fading. Right now we plan to keep them rolled up. We bought a piece of PVC pipe at a market and Eric fashioned a rope handle for it. And that is where they’ll probably rest until we return to Seattle for good!

The scroll above documents the owner of the scrolls and says basically - blessings to the owner and his house, etc.

This one (sorry it's sideways) depicts the sinners being judged by the 10 judges and going through the hellfire and torture and stuff that the Taoists/Daoists believe in.

To handle the dilemma about seeing new areas of China we decided to spend one week in Xizhou and one somewhere else but we didn’t plan it out until halfway through the first week. We asked the Lindens and other travelers for advice and finally settled on Jinghong in the Xishuangbanna region where the daytime temperatures are about 75 degrees at this time of year. It’s a tropical jungle area which is a 15 hour bus ride OR a 45 minute flight to the south. Which one do you think we chose?

Along with the benefit of cost savings, we thought it would be fun to experience riding on a sleeper bus! I could probably write 15 pages on the sleeper bus experience, but I’ll try not to.

We were picked up at the Linden Centre by a horse cart, which carried us and all our luggage to the main road for 20 RMB (about $3.00).

He then waited with us for about 30 minutes until the bus arrived (it was late). Somehow the horse cart driver seemed to have the cell phone number of the long distance sleeper bus driver so he told us they were running late. He was happy to hang out with us though, and let Ivy and Greta sit on his horse, which bites if you go within 3 feet of his head. The horse cart driver’s business card proudly proclaims that he has escorted CCTV (China Central TV) and that he himself has been featured on CCTV. This is because the TV station has done a few pieces on the Linden Centre and they use him regularly to transport guests.

So we hung around the dusty road with trucks blasting by at 80 miles per hour honking continuously to warn the high volume of bicycle and motor scooter riders and pedestrians along the sides.

Finally the bus arrived! Our luggage was loaded in the bowels of the bus and in we climbed. The first thing was that we had to remove our shoes right by the driver and put them in a red plastic bag. There was NO escaping this rule as they had a tiny little woman there enforcing it. And thank goodness, really, if you think of your shoes in China and what they encounter. The girls, being still small and without significant baggage to carry along, waltzed right down the 18 inch space between the two layer bunks. There were three rows of bunks; one along each window side of the bus and one in the center. There was an upper and lower bunk – I think I counted 42 bunks in all.

I, however, do not fit in an 18-inch space very well on a perfect day. And this day I had my 17-inch computer and two other bags. The girls and Eric made their way fairly elegantly down to the VERY END of the bus while I struggled and knocked into sleeping people left and right. All along what seemed like a mile long bus I kept saying, “I’ll just stay here” on a bottom bunk near where I happened to be at the time. But Eric encouraged me to keep going and so I did. Finally I reached the end and there were two upper bunks along both windows. We took them. There was a space in the bunk for your feet OR your luggage (if you didn’t want to be robbed). I prioritized my purse with money and passports over my feet. I stashed my purse, put my laptop on the bunk, gratefully handed my other bag to Ivy, and proceeded to figure out how to climb up on to this 20-inch wide bunk. Suffice it to say by the end of this long journey down the bus aisle and the climb up and the shifting to a position laying down staring at the ceiling I was a basket case of tears. The girls (being small and flexible) and Eric (being tall compared to the Asian people in general but still strong and flexible) seemed to have no problems.

Once settled in it became obvious that one couldn’t sit up comfortably so I resigned myself to lying back, trying not to imagine exactly what bodies had occupied this space since the creation of this bus. There was a much-needed thick comforter provided at each bunk. Just imagining how many people had slept on the bare mattress and used that blanket really required me to shut my mind down.

I dreaded pulling it up over my body, (the photo wasn't of mine, but one I spotted on a lower bunk - thank goodness), but did so because it was quite cold as darkness approached. The air vent above my window would not shut down entirely so a constant trickle of chilly air rushed in for the entire 15 hours. Except when we hit a particularly deep rut in the road, in which case the air vent was knocked loose and opened completely to allow a freezing blast of air to come pouring in. That blanket with who knows what history became my best friend, except when the condensation started to form on my window. Then the blanket morphed into a giant sponge becoming cold and damp by the halfway point. Still, by the middle of the journey I had it all around my face with only my nose peeking out.

And so I laid, head turned to the right to look out the window at the scenery until darkness fell. The road seemed to be laid out in nothing but hairpin turns and deep ruts. Our driver seemed to be in a mad rush most of the time, except for the inexplicable stops he made randomly for what seemed like at least 30 minutes to an hour at a time. We stopped for dinner and a toilet break at some roadside place. The "dining room" was basically an outdoor covered thing with food that I didn't even glance at because it looked incredibly inedible. We opted to skip dinner and eat the peanuts we had brought. Also, the Chinese young man who bunked between Eric and me gave us an orange each. I settled for that food and about 1/4 cup of water to minimize the need for toilet breaks. But of course nature did call.

After walking about ¼ mile to the toilets we learned we must pay 5 mau to use them. Ivy and Greta trudged back across the football field sized parking lot to climb aboard and make our way to the very end of the bus where Eric was guarding the carry-on stuff. They got the money and then we were set. I won’t go into any description of the toilet facilities other than to say they really should have paid ME to go in there.

The guy with the oranges was very excited to talk to Eric and told him we were the first foreigners he had ever spoken to of any kind. He was probably 25. There was a group of three French people on the bus but the rest were Chinese. They were generally very helpful and friendly when approached. At one pitch-dark toilet stop a man lent us his flashlight. Everyone was very curious about us and we definitely felt like celebrities.

The stars in the sky were amazing. I have never seen anything like it. I stared out at them until my neck got a crick from constantly being turned to the right and having the cold wind blowing in. My family says I slept a lot more than I think I did, but my estimate is maybe 2 hours of interrupted sleep in the entire 15 hour journey. Greta slept about 14.5 hours of it and Ivy maybe 6. Eric didn’t ever look asleep when I glanced over at him, but he says he slept fine. We are all glad we had the experience but I guess it’s safe to say we wouldn’t want to do it again any time soon… especially Greta who “lost” her Ipod along the way.

We arrived in Xishuangbanna at the city of Jinghong at around 9:00 in the morning. Took a taxi to our hotel, a Chinese hotel called Tian Shun Business Hotel. It had three beds so it was good to spread out after sharing beds at the Linden Centre. It appears we may be the first foreigners ever to have stayed in this hotel. They give us three (?) breakfast coupons every day. Every morning we go ask for another one since we have four people in our family. When we enter the dining room all the young girls that work there giggle and stare at us. Things are acceptable here that would not be in the USA or probably even in Beijing. This morning one guy lit up his breakfast cigarette, smoked it about ¼ of the way, and then threw it on the floor and ground it out with his shoe and walked away. It was a tile floor, but still…

Here is the dining room. Doesn't look like breakfast but it is! Sorry for the horrible picture, Eric - you don't look like that.

When we weren't out and about we played games in the hotel room. Ivy and Eric played this really fun game called "Throw the Weird Seed That was Inside This Fruit In he Drinking Glass Until It Breaks and We Have to Pay 17 RMB For It".

The fruit tastes like a date and each pod has about 3 seeds inside. Ivy collected and washed them all and then did creative things with them.

Jinghong feels like a sleepy little town compared to Dali. The people there have a different look to them, almost more Vietnamese or Laotian. Jinghong is just north of the border to Laos and a couple of hundred miles west of Vietnam. Their local Dai language is different and they have this kind of curly writing on every sign along with standard Mandarin.

We didn’t have to worry about getting run over by cars and scooters; people gave us a chance.

The foliage was gorgeous and tropical.

Here's my family next to the Mekong River.

Feeding ravenous starved fish in Peacock Park.

Oh, here's why they call it Peacock Park I guess!

Of course, not everything was so beautiful as the photos above. There's a lot of poverty here too. The kids play with sticks and rocks and make their own fun. Nary a Nintendo to be found!

In the upper left photo see the cart parked along the street by the blue truck? That's a little baby just old enough to pull himself up standing on that cart! No parent anywhere to be seen.

We hired cars for a couple of outings during our week there. First we went to an Aini minority village market which is only on Thursdays. The women all wear these red and white checked cloths over their heads. They are really beautiful people.

This lady appears to be wearing an inside out coat on her head.

I saw this when I looked down a side lane.

The market was similar to other markets we’ve experienced, but we did see some even more gruesome things than we see in Beijing!

Note the hair on the legs to the right...

Had enough? Okay, look how tiny this woman is (compare her to Ivy in the green coat!) Many many of the Aini people were this tiny. They thought we were giants.

While we were wandering through the market, our driver decided to go park the van on the top of a hill. We hiked straight up for what seemed ¼ mile, there he was, smoking a cigarette with a big grin. I had been looking for a toilet but was a little worried about what I might find at that market. Driver Yao said there was a toilet somewhere in the area so we got in the van and drove ten minutes on a bumpy road to an amazing little hamlet of houses in a valley. He parked at the top and again I asked for a toilet. We all needed one by then. He pointed down a dirt road so off we went. A little way down we came upon this.

You basically go into that box of wood on a steep hillside and there are two boards spaced about 5 inches apart. Between them you can look down upon a bunch of chickens running around in the jungle. The boards are substantial, but not secured down in any way so they aren’t parallel. It made me re-think eating chicken in this area after all four of us used that toilet.

We then wandered through the village, which was really great. The people obviously are not used to seeing tourists so they were a bit shy and stared at us. Only one guy was friendly and he even asked the girls if they wanted to eat with him.

We saw lots of pigs, chickens, rooster, goats, cows, and a few dogs and cats. There were maybe forty shack-like houses on a steep hillside. Here's a great shot of some popular home interior design.

Next we drove to a place where a Buddhist temple was just under construction and wandered around. There was an old Buddhist Monument nearby.

Greta and Ivy showed us they're still in between teenagers and little girls by playing in the dirt for a long time.

As I said, this temple was under construction. It was fascinating to watch this guy creating the dragons bordering the stairway. The methods he used were really old school - mixing the concrete in a heap on the ground and filling these molds. Letting them dry in the sun and then assembling them and painting.

Finally, we visited my favorite thing of the day – the Octagonal Temple in nearby Jingzhen Village. It was built in 1701 and is an excellent example of a Buddhist temple. Check out the rules for visiting:

We were absolutely alone there which is the first time that's happened to me in China.

The top of this side temple is supposed to look like lotus flowers on a crown.

There were paintings on the outsides of the main temple building depicting the sins, the good deeds, and people being judged and punished for them.

Inside the main temple were a intricate pendants hanging from the ceiling. The ceiling itself was interesting because we could see the undersides of the slate tiles from inside. There was one adult monk and three young boy monks-in-training in gold robes inside. We gave a donation and they gave us bracelets.

We were pretty tired after that day out! We ate nearly every meal at a place called Mei Mei Café, which serves local Dai dishes and also western food. It’s very good, very cheap, their bathroom, while having a squatty toilet, is very clean and they always have toilet paper (sorry, but the basics become important in China!!!) We felt guilty about not branching out and trying new places so we tried Mekong Café two doors down and disliked it very much. It’s owned by a Spanish-French man who stands at the sidewalk like a lost puppy begging people to come in. We decided after we tried it that we owed him nothing so started walking past and he would hold his head in his hands… unfortunately, he then had to watch us walk in to Mei Mei’s…

This was our favorite "fuwuyuan" (waiter):

Another day trip we took was to the Xishuangbanna Elephant Preserve. It’s a 1 ½ hour drive from Jinghong.

We had been warned it was touristy, but we all really wanted to see an elephant in the wild. When we arrived, fairly early in the morning, the parking lot was full of huge tour buses and cars so I was a bit worried. With optimism we paid and entered. The grounds were quite nice but there were guides with megaphones all around and crowds of noisy tourists. The Chinese tourists, (I shouldn’t generalize here, but I will), are completely the opposite of a Seattle tourist! I saw several people in the butterfly house picking up butterflies by their wings to place them on their baby’s arm or leg for a photo, for example. I promise this one landed on Ivy's leg of it's own will!

There were gorgeous rare plants all around and people would pick the flowers and hold them up to the monkeys to try to attract their attention.

We saw about 20 people dressed in ethnic garb practicing a dance so figured there would be a show later. Our driver rushed us through seeing the cobra, monkeys, butterflies, and birds:

... until we reached the gondola cable ride which crossed a valley in the mountain. Getting on and off that was a bit scary for me since they don’t slow it down AT ALL to allow boarding and disembarking. Once on, Ivy and I settled in for a 20 minute ride above the treetops! It was quite beautiful and we got to see what a real tropical jungle looks like.

In some ways, we felt like we were more the attraction to the Chinese people than were the elephants! Each time a gondola passed going the opposite direction we heard “Halooow!” We almost always obliged by saying “Hello!” back. Some people said, “Where are you from?”. I’d say over 50 people took photos of us on that ride. At one point, about 1/3 of the way up, we saw three elephants under the cable just crashing around eating plants. These were the Asian elephants which are smaller than the African ones, but still gigantic. From that angle and slight distance we could mostly just see their backs but it was still pretty thrilling!

At the top we found a crowd of people eating some type of meat or fish on skewers and drinks and cigarettes for sale. I considered wearing an outfit like this for the outing, but at the last minute decided on jeans and tennis shoes... Man, was I underdressed!

We skipped all that and headed down a long, steep staircase. We were simply following our guide with absolutely no idea what the plan was. Soon we came upon a clearing which was less crowded and had lots of fruit and corn for sale. The girls got corn on the cob and we found a river where the elephants come in the evenings to hang out. We saw lots of elephant footprints and elephant poop.

Eric said it reminded him of Jurassic Park.

We started walking on an elevated walkway spotted with tiny tree house “cabins” on each side.

We heard these cabins can be rented for staying overnight, but peeking inside there is no way I would stay in them! It would be cool though, to see the elephants that way. This section of the elevated pathway is older. Signs like this made me a little uneasy!

We continued walking and walking and soon it seemed we were not heading back to the cable gondola at all! Good thing we wore our sensible shoes because we ended up walking all the way back to the entrance of the park. It took over an hour with a few sections of steep stair climbing. But our reward was being out of the crowds. We really enjoyed this walk and it was then that we saw monkeys in the wild, amazing colorful birds, and Eric and Ivy saw a 4th wild elephant! (Greta and I were ahead quite a way so we missed it!)

Finally back down, our driver took us to a dirt ring surrounded by spectators at tables. In the ring were trained elephants. We aren’t too fond of captive elephants for show but the girls were excited to go for a ride so we went with the flow…

Just before we left there was a 30 minute show where the elephants did tricks and played soccer. It was a little hard to see from where I was sitting but it was more fun watching the crowd eating their watermelon seeds and drinking beer.

The bottom line: even though this was quite touristy we were glad we did it, especially for the girls.

The third day trip we took was to the Xishuangbanna Botanical Gardens. This was hands down the most lovely attraction I have seen in China yet (with the exception of the Great Wall at Simatai). It is a huge garden with thousands of unique plants. Our favorites were the distinctive plants garden, the palm garden and the bamboo gardens. We walked through this park for four hours. It was uncrowded: in fact for much of the time we were alone wherever we were. Perhaps this is why it was so pleasant. Being anywhere outside in China alone is a rarity.

Below right - yikes! Super sharp spines. We decided we wouldn't want to climb that tree!

For our grand finale in Jinghong, we visited Nonni's Hot Spring Spa. It was a beautiful and luxurious spa, but still very cheap compared to what you would pay in the states. We got to experience having our skin exfoliated by fish!

It was the weirdest sensation like someone scraping a tiny bit of sandpaper all over you. We couldn't decide if it tickled or hurt a bit. I'm sure in the states you would pay well over $100 for this day per person. I think it was around $20 for a full day.

I think Eric had the toughest time adjusting to the sensation...but the girls and I loved it!

We also went in several clear hot mineral ponds and in this salt room. I got a bloody blister on my finger from burying them all...

Finally it was time to get back to Kunming for one night before our return to Beijing. Boy were we tired!

At Kunming airport - would this make you feel welcome?!

We found a great youth hostel in Kunming called Cloudland Youth Hostel. Boy, either hostels have changed a lot since we were young travelers or we just always found the dregs before. This one was fantastic with a wonderful restaurant and electric mattress pads. Everything was spotless and bright and colorful. The people were super nice. We all wished we could have been there for more than just one night. Especially at $22 a night! Here Eric and Ivy are playing pingpong. The little Chinese girls kept watching Eric and giggling like mad.
The next day we returned to cold Beijing and the real world. The girls had lots of Christmas presents to open so that eased the burden of leaving our relaxing vacation! New snowboarding coats!

Glasses that allow you to lay down staring straight up at the ceiling and watch TV!

The complete Simpsons - all seasons!!!!

Music / game supply for the year!!!

So now the girls are back at school and Eric is back to work. I'm working on a fitness project for myself and so Eric and I dedicated a larege chunk of real estate in our small apartment to THE BEAST:

I'll keep you posted on how that goes. My goal is to be able to fit easily down the sleeper bus aisle (even though I'll never step foot in one of those ever again in this life or the next!!!!!)

In a few weeks our nephew Nathan will be here and we're so excited. Promise to send an update soon. And promise it will be shorter.

Love you,
Miss you,