Saturday, December 22, 2007

Rice Terraces and Rats

While Tim was up north checking out Kung Fu, I headed south to Yangshou. When I arrived, I decided I wanted to be someplace quieter, and took off for the small village of Xingping. Here I met Marnie, another solo woman traveler, and we decided to go to even smaller, hike-in only villages off the road. After four bus journeys we arrived in Pingan, which is famous for its amazing, steeply engineered rice terraces and home to several of China's minority groups.

China's minority groups are big business. Tourists, particularly Chinese tourists, like to see the minorities singing, dancing, or doing other 'traditional' things, while dressed in traditional clothing, even though it is now more often then not made in Chinese factories and worn on top of blue jeans. They also love to shop at tacky 'minority craft' souvenir shops, mostly owned by Han Chinese and featuring mass produced factory goods. Sometimes it gets the flavor of a human zoo! I will admit that I also enjoy seeing different groups of people who live differently than I do (whether minority or not), although I usually seek a more authentic experience than what China tourism often offers. But then, China's tacky tourist sites are an authenticly Chinese experience all their own!

After staying one night in Pingan, Marnie and I planned to walk three hours to Dazia. As we started off in a thick fog that limited visibility to about 20 feet, we met a group coming from Dazia who warned us to take a guide. They said they would not have made it without one. We hesitated for a bit, before deciding to go for it on our own.

On the trail we soon caught up with two beautiful Yao women in hand embroidered clothing carrying baskets on their backs. The women lived in a small village on the way to Dazai and insisted on hiking with us. At one point in the journey, they stopped and uncovered a hidden scythe and began chopping wood for that evenings fire with it. One of the women then let down her nearly ankle length hair and recoiled it around her head. The Yao women wear their hair coiled up somewhat like a Sikhs turban with a large bun in the front. The bun is visible but the rest they cover with a black cloth. They use not only their own hair, but also long lengths of hair they get from God knows where to thicken their hairdos. After restyling their hair, the women shouldered the loads of wood and we started all off again.

One of the ladies styles her hair...

While the other chops tree branches

It was amazing how much we could understand each other despite the language barrier. By the time we reached thier village, Marnie and I decided we wanted to stay there with them, if they offered. The women did offer, and also fed us three delicius meals of rice, fish, and vegetables from the garden that day and the following morning. They toured us around the village and brought us to see the children getting out of school. As they do all over China before being dismissed, the children line up in a military style. We saw the pigs, ponies, cows, and ducks that the families keep under and around the houses. We watched as they recoiled their hair yet again, met their mother, husbands, and children. It was grandma's room that Marnie and I were going to sleep in. That evening, one of the women brought out her loom and worked on a beautifully woven jacket like the one that she was wearing. All together it was a very wonderful experience and a great view into the Yao culture...


Until that night when the rats took over the house!

Maybe I am a real wimp, but that night was hell. I shivered as I brushed a rat turd out of the bed, having a small inkling of what was to come. There was nowhere else to go, so I laid down fully clothed, pillow covered, to the overpowering scent of urea wafting up from the animals below. The cow was bellowing and the pig was squealing. The lights went out and about 15 minutes later I began to hear the rats running around, across the cloth draped ceiling and down the walls. They were chewing too, and making tapping sounds. The room must have had scores of them. I wonder if they breed them in here to eat later!

I tried to turn the light back on, but it did not work. I turned on the headlamp and laid it on the pillow next to me and tried not to sleep, fearful that a rat would run across my face. Marnie did the opposite-she put in earplugs and tried to ignore it. The headlamp disturbed the cow, who must have been able to see the light through the walls, and he began to bellow again. Despite our predicament, we could not help but laugh.

The next morning we had a good breakfast, after which I could not get out fast enough, and when we reached Pingan a few minutes after the two hourly bus left I insisted on walking down the road and trying to flag someone down. Distance! Although I had a wonderful time with the ladies and had decided that it had been worth the hell night, I still wanted distance between the rats and I, as quick as possible!

We got lucky and within minutes a plush Lexus with a leather interior had pulled over to let us in and the driver, Tang, who spoke excellent English, offered to take us all the way to Guilin. He was a factory owner/chopstick exporter traveling with a Japanese client and a Chinese/Japanese speaking man who smoked 8.00$ a pack cigarettes. For Chinese men, the cost of their cigarettes defines them, what tier of society they belong in, the social class of their friends. For Chinese women, smoking is taboo, the sign of a loose women.

I asked Tang to ask the man who smoked why Chinese men smoke so much. His answer was very eloquent "Chinese men must work very hard, all the time. We must smoke so that we don't live as long." He followed this up with a little less eloquence and a little more crude humor "Chinese men can do only two things. They can work, and they can smoke... well actually Chinese men can do three things!" We all laughed as we left the rats further and further behind us.


Like in Kedernath, India some people like to announce their wealth by being carried around the rice terraces in doli chairs. This photo taken on the path leading to Pingan.

Corn hangs to dry throughout China

The two ladies moving up the trail ahead of us as we left Pingan.

In this fog, the visibility across the terraces was quite low.

Gold barked bamboo in the fog.

Walking through the foggy terraces loaded down with wood for the nights cooking and heating.

One of the ladies in front of her home. The houses are huge barn like structures. The first floor is where the animals and toilet are located.

A man we met walking through the village.

The children lined up, military style, before being dismissed from school.

Fresh vegetables for our dinner!

Feeding baby with chopsticks.

Dad with baby

Working the loom under grandma's watchful eye.

Grandma is a bit shy about photos but she let me take this one. She is a widow, and thus wears black. The married women all wear the bright pink embroidered clothing that they make themselves.

The family's ancestor shrine. There are many clocks, all stopped at various times, perhaps at the time of death of various ancestors. The largest is next to grandpas photo. A matching clock still ticks opposite. We believe this might be grandmas clock.

A breakfast of steaming rice

Some views of the terraces as the fog lifted on our way out

Marnie, the two ladies, and I saying goodbye. They walked back to Pingan with us so we would not get lost.

Waging War on the Bus Touts

Author Paul Theroux says that the Chinese have a special laugh that means "we can always fool a foreigner" and I agree with him. Especially when it comes to pricing. I was fooled, paying 20 Yuan bus fair to Yangshou, after which I saw the locals handing over various smaller amounts, none more than 10 Y. I went to the front of the bus and threw a fit, to no avail. The touts had run off with my extra money. I decided to declare war on the Yangshou/Guilin bus line.

My next ride between the cities, I handed over 10 Y without asking the price. The lady demanded 15 and I refused, waving her on to collect from the other passengers. She gave my ten back contemptuously and began collecting fares from other passengers. They all had 10 ready, she would say something to them, and then they gave her 15. I knew that tricky woman was saying "just give me 15, I'll give you 5 back later. There are foreigners on the bus I need to fool." All that was missing was the laugh. She came back for my money, telling me it was express bus (it was not). What could I do? Reluctantly I handed over 15. Sure enough, throughout the bus ride when she thought I was not looking, she sneakily handed a bill back to each of the locals who had overpaid! All that for an extra 5 Yuan! I went to the front of the bus and threw a fit, to no avail (this is starting to sound familiar).

My final ride, determined to pay the local price, I armed myself with a 10 Yuan note. Having waved down the bus to Guilin on the road, I waved the bill around, refusing to get on until the bus conductor said OK. Finally, vindication! I paid the same fare the locals paid. All this to save 5 Yuan!

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Birthplace of Kung Fu

The Birthplace of Kung Fu (Tim's post)

Tim and I decided to take seperate itineraries for two weeks, as he wanted to visit the Shaolin monestary, and I wanted to jet down south towards warmth. The following is Tim's experiance at Shaolin monestary.

Having studied several martial arts in the past, my visit to China would not have been complete without a visit to the Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of Shaolin Kung Fu. In the 6th century, and Indian monk named Bodhidharma is thought to have introduced the temple monks to a system of exercises to improve their health between long periods of meditation. These exercises evolved into different forms and were spread across Asia to become distinct martial arts styles in China and other Asian countries.

While Yarrow was enjoying experiences in rural southern China, I spent three days in Dengfeng, the "Kung Fu City" near Shaolin Temple. Most of the kung fu schools that started in or near Shaolin have relocated to Dengfeng. There are probably a dozen large schools (1000+ students) and many smaller ones. I visited a few schools to see their facilities and get information about training for foreigners. At one school I saw 5 foreigners training and got to talk with two of them about their experience. Most of the Chinese students train outside and it's quite entertaining to watch a thousand kids at one time practicing kung fu forms, acrobatics, weapons and fighting. There are few foreigners here now because it is very cold. They like to train during the warm, wet summer months. I can't blame them!

On Sunday I finally visited the "Shaolin Scenic Area". I was told it was super touristy so I was prepared to be let down, but it was quite fun and I could have spent a lot more time there. The temple itself has been restored recently but still looks old. Aside from its significance as the birthplace of Kung Fu, it doesn't have a lot of memorable sights. It is built on a low angled slope so you climb stairs from one courtyard to the next as you move towards the back of the complex. One hall has paintings of monks in kung fu practice. A side courtyard has terracotta monks in various kung fu training and fighting poses. In my opinion the Lama Temple in Beijing is similar in design but much more interesting to visit as there are so many pilgrims burning incense and honoring the statues.

The scenic area has a training center east of the Shaolin Temple that stages performances for tourists five times a day. I wasn't expecting anything too great, as more than one traveler had spoken negatively about it. However, this was really amazing. I even stayed in the building to see a second performance.

The performance started with a group of monks doing routines with the Shaolin staff doing many turns, jumps, and beating the ground. Next a young boy monk did some amazing flexibility stretches and acrobatics. Notably, he was sitting with his legs in the yoga lotus position before he moved smoothly into a head stand with his legs still interlocked.

Several monks demonstrated kung fu animal boxing forms with a lot of spins, flips and crazy movements. In the 2nd show they pulled a few audience members in to try to imitate the monks, which was quite hilarious and shows how difficult it is to learn.

The most interesting to me was the Shaolin Hard Qi Gong demo. The monks focus their energy with breathing and movements before doing feats of strength. The first monk broke two metal plates over his head. The second boy monk did one finger push ups and two finger handstand push ups. The final monk attempted to throw a small nail through a plate of glass to burst a balloon. He failed on the first try but then succeeded on the second throw. The plate of glass looked like it had been shot through with a small bullet! I was told it takes many years of practice before one can reach these levels of Qi Gong mastery.

The final act was a demonstration of 10 different Shaolin weapons and some choreographed fighting with weapons. Then they broke 3cm thick sticks over a monks arm, outstretched leg and head. Most people would have been broken to pieces by these attacks but the monk was unfazed! Needless to say, I was impressed.

Overall it was a fun time and couldn't resist the urge to buy a photo of me posing with three of the kung fu monks. I didn't get to climb to Bodhidharma's meditation cave, trek into the mountains or look at anything west of the Pagoda Forest. To do those things would likely be more than a full day.

Visiting the Shaolin Temple and Dengfeng got me excited about getting back into martial arts studies when we return to the states. I have decided that I wouldn't want to study Kung Fu in Dengfeng. The schools are much like military boot camps and don't fit with my goals for training and learning. Now in Yangshuo, I started studying Yang style traditional Tai Chi and Yarrow is encouraging me to extend my visa to continue studying Chinese language and Tai Chi for another month or two. I would then meet her again in New Zealand or South America for the last few months of our trip. Even though it would be tough for both of us to be apart so long, I will likely never have so much "free" time to be able to spend a few months in China again so it seems like a good plan.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Mao's Resting Place

Mao's mausoleum dominates one end of Tienanmen square. I do not know of any other modern day leader who lays within such a monumental building; it seems ironic to me that this ancient practice was revived for the head of a Communist party! Mao's body is preserved inside with formaldehyde.

I joined the throngs of Chinese for a glimpse of the countries past leader. Young and old, urban and farmer, are all lined up alike, in typical Chinese fashion, between yellow lines painted on the pavement and kept in order by police yelling into bullhorns. Eventually the line splits in two and each line goes into one of two identical buildings to be screened by police and metal detectors. No bags or cameras are allowed inside. Afterwards the lines snake into the building. The first room you enter is huge, with a gigantic, white marble Mao sitting in a gigantic, white marble, shell patterned easy chair. Behind him, a 100 foot long needle point tapestry, depicting China's mountains, stretches across most of the wall. In front is a mini jungle of potted green plants and piles of roses.

From here you are herded down one of two halls and into the small inner chamber. Here, inside a glass enclosed area, two police officers stand guard over Mao's glass coffin. Mao's body inside is tiny, shrunken by death, and covered with the red hammer and sickle communist flag. His shoulders, clothed in a dark suit, are visible above the covering, as is his face, bathed in an eery, unnatural, golden light and looking stiff and waxy. The people are all quiet as they file by, straining for a better glimpse. In the next room, capitalism reigns in the display cases of Mao memorabilia for sale.

I walked outside into the cool air and stopped to turn and carefully study the faces of the people leaving. I have never seen a group of Chinese so quiet, so somber, and I wonder, what are they thinking?
Why are they here?
Are they paying their respects?
Are they casting off old shadows?
What memories are they reliving in their minds?
Finally, when we passed the outer gates where all the cheerful family members are waiting, yelling out, and snapping photos, finally then we re-enter the world of the living.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

When in Rome...(or China)

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Or, when in China, do as the Chinese do. And, as some people might know, the Chinese like to eat dog-lots of dog!

Now most of you who know me, know me as a vegetarian. But, when we began this trip I decided that if I was strict about this, I would, at worse starve (and I would have in Central Asia!), and at best miss out on a lot of new and exciting culinary experiences.

So that is why I sat in a Chinese restaurant and ate Fluffy. Now, when the Chinese serve you Fluffy, it's not just the prime cuts; the T-bone or the rump or the ribs. No, there is some liver, some heart, some tiny kidneys, and some who knows what in your dish as well. For those of you curious about what dog meat tastes like, the way I had it was very much like beef jerky-dark, tough, stringy, and salty. Well, enough culinary experiences for now; tomorrow I think I'll order the mushrooms and bamboo!