Tuesday, June 17, 2008

10/31/07 "From Kunming to Shangrila"

Three weeks of life in China is worth about three months the amount of activity I would have if I were in the States. After I returned from my week long solo trip up to Lijiang and Lugu Lake, I returned to Kunming (the city) and entered a Chinese homestay. The family lived in an apartment as do all residents of Kunming. By law you're only aloud to have a living space of a certain size and houses are prohibited. However, within the legal limits, the Chinese can potentially live relatively luxurious city lives if they have the money. My family was comprised of a dad, in business for himself selling communication equipment, a mom, working in a cigarette factory, which because it's endorsed and controlled by the government it pays well, and a 13 year old daughter, Melody, who speaks English really well and wants to go to high school and college in America (she has Princeton for college in mind). Also, there was a nanny/housekeeper of sorts who lived off the kitchen. Her name was Aqin (Ah Cheen) and although she was shy and got embarrassed easily, she had a goofy wild spirit underneath it all, which she couldn't hold back from me. I guess one goofy person can't hide from another. She is 22 years old now, but she started working for the family when she was 15; she moved from a small village to find a job that would pay her more than she would make farming. I asked her what she would do if she could do anything with her life and she said that she either wanted to open her own clothing store (which she plans on doing once she makes a total of 40,000 yuan) or she wants to become a flight stewardess because she likes the outfit and it would be fun to serve people food and drinks and make them happy. When I asked what she would do if she had all the money in the world she said she would go back to her village and first build her family a big house and then help out the rest of her village. She has such a free and generous spirit. I was so glad we got to meet and be friends. It was really interesting to talk to the mom. She has a dream of Melody moving to America and then bringing her and the dad over and then supporting them. Melody rolls her eyes and says, "my mom doesn't understand that I have my own life to live." Then she asked me if my mom was like that. As the mom looked at me also eager to hear the response, I very carefully said that my mom believes that my life is mine alone to figure out and live, but that many parents who are invested in their children's lives just want the best for their children. I then changed the subject with both mother and daughter looking mildly appeased.

I was in the homestay for two weeks. Those were my last two weeks in Kunming before my group started to travel together around the province (Yunnan). Before I left, I made some mental notes about the quirks that made it a Chinese city and not an American city. There are just some things you won't see in America.

1. VW cars have some different names: the Bora and the Santana in addition to the Jetta and Passat. The Bora was a little bit smaller than the Jetta and the Santana a little bit bigger than the Passat.

2. Babies wear pants with an open butt. So, baby's butts are hanging out everywhere.

3. On the same note children just pop a squat on the sidewalk. Watch your step.

4. Driving is insane…lanes are ignored and in the morning people drive wherever to get where they want to go…on the opposite side of the street, the sidewalk, the bike lane (which is an additional lane as big as a car lane for the masses of bikes and mopeds). Fortunately, everyone drives on the slow side and everyone knows that people drive crazily, so they're on guard.

5. Unique to Kunming (unlike other cities in China), on the drive to school my Chinese dad would play VCDs of minority dances and songs (VCD=Video CDs…the step between a CD and DVD, which was mostly skipped over in America…I never heard of VCDs). In Yunnan province, home to 26 of China's 55 official minorities, minority culture is rich and appreciated more than most other places in China.

Food in Kunming is fairly normal including rice, chicken, pork, beef, tofu of various sorts, all prepared in various ways including in dumplings, and then an array of veggies and fruits. Some differences are the common use of hot chili peppers, eating chicken feet as a snack, really sweet bread that is the most processed tasting thing in China, fried goat cheese as a common dish often with sugar on it (goat cheese is the only cheese in China), readily available pomegranates (as common as apples are to America), persimmons, and pomelos (huge melons). Nuts are constantly roasting creating a wonderful smell in the air especially in the fall. Vendors line the sidewalks selling an array of snack foods from these egg burrito things, to rice-meal-tortilla burrito things, to anything fried to meat skewers.

I've been on the road for a little more than a week now. First we went to a mountain town called Weibaoshan within Dali prefecture (Dali is a major town in Yunnan province). Weibaoshan was entirely quaint and I'd love to go back someday. It was the capital of the Nanzhao state during the Tang dynasty and several different cultures merged and emerged from the area, so it's rich with history and culture. Then we stayed a night in a really comfortable classic Chinese hotel (outside with a courtyard) near the top of a mountain with an incredible view and a path just outside that led to a series of temples and the peak. It was wonderfully peaceful. The stars were so bright. The next couple of nights we spent in Dali. I really liked Dali. It's inhabited predominantly by the Bai people who highly value aesthetics and artistic design. So, it's beautiful. There's a wall around the old city with four main entrances that have the design of the ancient royal style. The old city is in the shape of a T, with two main intersecting streets. It has certainly been transformed into a tourist town with a couple streets dedicated to Western-style cafes and bars, one of which has an elaborate overarching structure as the entrance to the street calling it Foreigner's street. Old women liberally come up to you offering ganjiao (marijuana). Manijuana plants are growing freely all along the roadside throughout Dali prefecture. Since it's not tourist season, it wasn't terribly busy, but you'll still see foreigners regularly and more curious outside Chinese on the weekend.

After Dali we drove three hours out and stayed the night at a monastery. It may well be the first place I've been on this trip that felt un-fabricated. All the temples we've been to, although certainly historically real, don't give me a genuine vibe. Maybe it's because this temple was more like a small compound set in the mountains with five Buddhist monks living on site and then people who prepare the food. They don't eat any meat and their diet consists of dried mint and seaweed, soups with leafy vegetables, goat cheese, and other vegetables. Breakfast was mantou, which is a plain but dense dough bread. Also we had an incredible mushroom and noodle soup that tasted like it belonged at the Macaroni Grill. Funny how sense memory can take you from a remote Buddhist monastery to Macaroni Grill. Also, there were these crazy monkeys all over who weren't shy and would come up to you and take things out of your hands and then bear their teeth. It was scary at times. But the mama with her baby was adorable. My first monkey encounter was in the afternoon when I was chilling in my room and the door opened and a monkey sauntered in. This monastery has massive colorful Buddha statues in the tall mountain side which was backdrop to the temple. There was also a waterfall. It was serene, especially at dusk when the monks were in the temple praying with their chants and singing. At night it got so cold though. Because the doors have carvings in them, they don't block the outside air and there's a constant breeze. We were on beds though with warm comforters. For that I was grateful.

For the past three days, I've been staying in a rural village in Shaxi county. Shaxi is between Dali and Lijiang if you ever look for it on a map (you'd have to have a detailed one since it's fairly small). It's almost entirely agriculturally dependent except for the one village that I am in. About five years ago some Swiss individuals took to the village and decided to invest in preserving its architecture. As soon as foreigners posed their interest and the Chinese government backed the project the people of the village began to view their village as something worth preserving, something that outsiders might be interested in. In the last five years little shops have been opening right and left including basic supply shops with food, drink, soap, and luxury items, a cell phone shop, small restaurants and a couple of bars/caf├ęs. As more people come, the villagers are motivated to develop a service based economy which then accommodates the tourists and encourages more to come, thus rapidly perpetuating itself. In order for rural villages to transform into tourist sights, two things must happen. It must be accessible by bus or car and it must have accommodations like guesthouses, cafes/teahouses/hangout spots, all of which must be inspired somehow. Also, it needs to have some aesthetic appeal. And Shaxi is gorgeous. It's a valley surrounded by so many mountains. It has beautiful architecture and out in the country here the skies can't get bluer and more stars can't shine at night. I've never seen so many stars in my life. Because this village is developing, but still an innocent and predominantly rural village, it's perfect for my independent project that I will take up in another week. So I will return shortly and have more stories to tell.

Now I'm in Zhongdian which has been internationally deemed Shangrila as described by James Hilton in Lost Horizon . It's supposed to be a fantasy location of sorts, but Dali and Lijiang are both more beautiful than it is here. However, the Tibetan people which inhabit this area are enchanting. There's something about them that glows from within more so than the Naxi or Bai people from Lijiang and Dali. I just arrived tonight, but we'll be here for three nights and then we'll venture to Lijiang. The group tour will end there and we'll all be unleashed for our Independent Study Projects. I'll stay in Lijiang to do a little bit of research for about a week and then I'll go back down to Shaxi for three weeks. Come December 7th the group will reconvene in Kunming to present out projects and turn in our 40 page papers. Then we'll travel to Beijing for a week and before I know it I'll be back in the States.

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