Sunday, February 28, 2010

CHINA TRAVEL PART 5: A short journey to Shaxi

After Tiger Leaping Gorge, I parted ways with my friends to check out the town of Shaxi, an historic market town. According to an exhibit there, Shaxi was an important stop on the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail, "which existed as a commercial lifeline between Yunnan, Tibet, and beyond for over 1,000 years. Similar to the more highly acclaimed northern Silk Road, the Tea and Horse Caravan Trail acted as a breeding ground for cultural exchange and fiscal barter, facilitating trade in tea, horses, and other goods between diverse ethnic groups residing along the eastern edge of the Himalayan massif."

Now, usually I'm not interested in anything that happened over a hundred years ago. I'm just a modern type of gal. But after seeing so many fake-new Chinese cities in the South (old things repainted garish colors, construction, high-rises), I was interested to see what an authentically old town looked like. First, it involved taking a bus to Jianchuan, and then a smaller bus to Shaxi.

People really packed that bus full. Also, they smoked a lot. After a while, the guys sitting next to me told me that we had just passed Shaxi, so I hopped off and walked back into town. It was a very pretty and fairly isolated walk.

When I got into town, I was immediately disappointed. It just looked like any other gross Chinese town: little stores selling cell phones, dusty streets, someone fixing a motorcycle. Was this it? It couldn't be. So I asked around and finally made it to the historic part of town, which was just as "historic" as promised.

I also befriended some kids in the main square. They were busy throwing stray branches up at a large tree, causing edible seeds to fall down. Then they all scrambled to collect them.

A couple of them spoke Mandarin in addition to the local dialect, so I chatted feebly with them. I love talking to kids because they e-nun-ci-ate every syllable and they're sweet and non-judgmental. I gave them my camera for a bit so they could take photos too.

I checked out the old temple and theater, as well as the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project, which described the work they're doing for the area - a combination of tourism for economic reasons (it's a poor province) and sustainable community-building stuff like micro-credit.

Then I went to get myself some food. If you're wondering if I'll be coming back to America looking really svelte, the answer is in that giant bowl of rice.

After spending some more time with the local kids, I went back to my little guesthouse, which was a perfect place to spend the night. I read a while downstairs, and then went back to my beautiful dorm room with Japanese-style futons on the floor and powerful electric blankets.

All in all, it was a very peaceful day and night in Shaxi. The next day I got on a bus, headed back to Lijiang, and then, back to Kunming to meet up with Kim and Nick.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

CHINA TRAVEL PART 5: Obstruction (of justice!)

So we were done with the hike! What a joyous occasion. We got on a little minivan headed back to Lijiang and got ready to lean back and enjoy the ride. Right? Wrong!

It turns out that our ride was interrupting some very important road construction, which involved blowing up rock wall and then slowly removing the huge chunks with one of those wheel loader things. While it was sort of fascinating to watch, it took forever and our driver kept nervously looking up at the rock wall. It was becoming clear that being near exploding rocks in a rock-slide prone zone was not the smartest thing.

Somehow Kim and Nick managed to look very glamorous in the midst of all this rubble and slow-moving chaos.

Finally we were moving again. Our driver drove at an alarming speed, very close to the edge, and Kim was not happy. He also drove through a little waterfall, similar to the one that we clambered over on the hike. But we survived and made it safely back to Lijiang.

Next up: I take a solo journey to Shaxi!


After the 28 bends and some gorgeous scenery, we arrived at the Halfway (Guest) House. We read and relaxed outside, while Nick tried to sleep off his ailments.

We spent the evening playing cards and drinking tea and eating baba (Naxi flat bread, pita-like), and reading under our electric blankets. I should also mention that the guesthouse had one of the best bathroom views I've ever seen.

Well-rested, we continued on the next day. The hike itself wasn't dangerous, but one part was potentially treacherous: it involved walking over running water on the side of a sheer cliff. Above you was a waterfall rushing down, and below you was the waterfall continuing, and your job was to navigate the flat trail in between. I don't have any photos of the cliff because I'm not crazy, but you can use your imagination:

My friends opted to carefully cross on the dry rocks, but I decided I didn't want to be anywhere near the edge. I just walked right through the waterfall, soaking my shoes. Everyone was very concerned about my damp feet, but those New Balance sneakers I bought in tenth grade must be made of magic or something. My feet were dry again in minutes. It helped that the sun was coming out. In the early morning, we had to pray to the Sun God to hurry on up.

And when we weren't doing that or chatting or daydreaming, we were temporary goat herders, which was loads of fun. Goats are both goofy and surprisingly agile.

Thursday, February 25, 2010


Lijiang had been lovely, but soon it was time to bid farewell to the old town and to Mama Naxi, proprietor of our hostel. We couldn't quite make up our minds about Mama - she was an aggressive businesswoman, happy to assist you only if it benefited her, but also friendly and sweet and hardworking. She's on the left here, flanked by her equally hard-working staff. (Naxi or Nakhi is the name of one of the many Chinese ethnic minorities.)

We were ready to set off for our main adventure, which was hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge. Unfortunately, one of the Lijiang eateries had not been kind to Nick's stomach, so he spent a good portion of the hike feeling ill. He was a trooper, though, and we all took it slowly and enjoyed the scenery. We had also picked up a Brit at this point, a very nice guy named Chris, who joined us for the multi-day hike. The scenery was spectacular.

The toughest part of the hike was something called the 28 Bends. It's a very steep incline that has many twists and turns (28, in fact) up to the top. I had heard so much about it from friends that I mentally prepared for the worst. But in the end, I had built my expectations up so much that when I was almost finished, I thought we hadn't even started it! (Not that it was easy, don't get me wrong). It was immensely satisfying, despite being out of breath most of the time.

Me on the mountaintop with "Portraits of Chinese Women in Revolution," a terrific book that Amy Jo gave me.

CHINA TRAVEL PART 2: Exploring Lijiang

After Dali, Sarah flew back to Kuala Lumpur to be with her parents and get treatment for her arm. We soldiered on, sadly one member short of our crew. Despite being just as tourist-filled, we ended up liking Lijiang more than Dali. The old town was full of winding, narrow, cobble-stoned streets, with blue skies and snow-capped mountains in the distance. Granted, they had suffered a major earthquake in the past and I think most of the old town was a reconstruction, but I didn't let that stop my imagination from enjoying itself.

In addition to bumming around the town, we took a bicycle ride to Baisha, a small village a few miles away. It probably used to be fairly quiet, but an influx of tourists has created a street full of hawkers and trinkets. Still, we were able to do a bit of exploring on our own.

We also stopped in at a little place where Kim and Nick ordered their favorite dish: egg-and-tomato. Most of my friends like it and it's a pretty popular Chinese meal, but I am not a fan.

One of my favorite parts of Lijiang was just sitting in the center square, writing in my journal, talking to some of the locals, and people-watching in the sunshine. While the throngs of Chinese tourists can be annoying, often I find it interesting. Travel is a luxury and with the rise of the middle class and general standards of living, I imagine domestic tourism is reaching unprecedented levels. (Note: I have zero statistics to back this up). Anyway, I enjoyed hanging out and absorbing the scene. Also, as this province is the home to many of China's ethnic minorities, there is a large focus on that part of the culture for the benefit of tourists, such as these women folk dancers in the square:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


After a boring, lonely week in Dalian and a mad dash to grade exams and submit them electronically on the university's finicky server (a minor nightmare), on January 15th I was finally free! I boarded a plane for sunny Kunming in Southern China to meet up with my friends Nick, Kim, and Sarah. I even overlapped with Tae for a day, which was great. We sat outside on the deck of our hostel and had a few beers and attempted to catch a glimpse of the solar eclipse.

The next day, we boarded a bus for Dali, farther north. A popular backpacker's haven, I had heard a lot about this place and how cool and funky it was - but it ended up being a bit too touristy for my liking. I also associate it with Sarah breaking her arm and so perhaps that has tainted my memory.

Nonetheless, it's a beautiful area.

The Old Town is filled with little shops...

...and markets

...and mushrooms

...and peaceful parks filled with old people playing Mah jongg

...and adorable children doing potentially dangerous things

Overall, we had a pleasant few days there, punctuated by the stress and trauma of a broken arm. Kim has some fantastic pictures of our hospital visit, which I'll have to insert into another blog post. Next stop: Lijiang!

Profiles in Awesome: Freya Bellin


February 25th (which is tomorrow in China) is the birthday of my lovely grandmother and my dear friend, Freya, who is long overdue for an internet shout-out.

Freya and I met in math class in 7th grade at Hommocks Middle School, a prison masquerading as a learning facility. We also did something called "Reading Advantage." I don't quite remember the point of it, but it was some sort of elective and it gave us the opportunity to become better friends. Then came 8th grade, where we were both had the illustrious teaching team of McCurdy and Ahern. Ostensibly we were learning English and Social Studies, but we also spent ample time creating nicknames for the boys we had crushes on. And there was a lot of giggling. I actually remember running out of my history class because I was laughing so hard. Oh, middle school.

The point of all that is to say that I met Freya at the height of my awkwardness and somehow she saw through that and became one of my closest friends, someone who I've always had a deep respect for and known I could count on. I've gone to her with many relationship problems, whether they involve parents or boyfriends or roommates or certain cast members of the sitcom Scrubs. She's smart, thoughtful, and a good listener - but most of all, she's extremely non-judgmental and I find that to be a rare quality in most people. And despite the fact that she now wears high heels and has a Real Job, she has a terrific sense of humor that's always been the mainstay of our friendship. (If you need proof, I have a few choice videos from tenth grade, including a J-Lo video remake and a trippy Chanukah-related murder mystery. Katie is implicated as well.)

So here's to you, Fritabean - I hope you have a joyous birthday with all the Manhattan trimmings. I miss you lots and look forward to a New York reunion this summer.