Tuesday, April 29, 2003

China Unmasked 5: Meiguo Go Home

Hello My Friends,

Well, I got to Lijiang on Saturday night and went to get a room at a place I read about in a guidebook and I was told... we have rooms but we're not allowed to rent them to foreigners. Fortunately, I met a girl on the street who had a guesthouse and I was able to stay there on Saturday.

Sunday morning, I went walking around the Old Town as it was scheduled to close down any minute. It's got all these canals running through it and is home to the Naxi people. Imagine little wrinkled old ladies in blue Mao hats and blue skirts carrying baskets of whatever walking down cobblestone streets. Now mix in a little Fisherman's Wharf and you've got the picture.

When I went back to the guesthouse at 11:30.. I was told the police had come by and I basically had until 3:00pm to get outta Dodge because they would be swooping through again to make sure there were no foreigners (as we are now being pegged as the chief spreaders of SARS). There were only two hotels in the new town that would take us.

I went back to a cafe to eat before I had to leave and ended up meeting these two Australian women who saved me. They are living in Lijiang and speak Chinese. Long story short, we got me checked into one of the hotels and then all went on a bike ride. At 8000 ft. I was going pretty slow. We ended up going to one of the few restaurants that was open and belting out "My Heart Will Go On" from the Titanic while we ate... it was quite a moment.

I spent yesterday rearranging my plane tickets, going to the Black Dragon Pool Park (very scenic and nice without so many people) and then meeting the Aussies and some other people for some Sichuan hotpot. Basically put some boiling hot liquid on the table and then dump your food in it to cook.

Today I am in Kunming at a hostel Mary Kay recommended. The Aussies suggested I go to a different place but when I got there the guy asked for my passport. When he saw I was from Meiguo (that means beautiful country and USA) he told me they were booked. I asked if they were booked because I was Meiguo. He said no, we're booked. Then you could have told me that before you knew where I was from. Then he said... government regulations because of SARS.

China has swung from the extreme of denying there was a problem to now quarantining blocks of people, shutting down towns, relocating the foreigners, and frequently squirting everything with some chlorine solution. (My cab got squirted on the way into Lijiang). I don't think this is especially helpful.

So basically, I'm headed to Guilin tomorrow to meet Mary Kay and after that everything is flexible.

I am healthy and being careful and will let you know what happens.

Talk to you again soon.


Friday, April 25, 2003

China Unmasked 4

Hello My Friends!

First of all, thanks to everyone who offered to wire money. You'll be happy to know that I found a bank that will give me cash from my credit card (for a small fee). I'm stocked up for awhile and know that this is an option if I can't find an ATM that works for me.

Note: this ended up being a long one so... since it is Friday morning for most of y'all, I suggest getting a cup of coffee before you start reading this.

Someone please tell me why, when I'm not much of a trekker, why I think I can go trekking the minute I leave town?? And a question for the runners... do you think 16km is about 20 miles? If it is more tell me, if I am confused and it is less, don't tell me because I am amazed I hiked that far. But I am already ahead of myself.

So, Wednesday, Sarah the guide and I catch a 2 hour bus to Menghai, bus stop of the trough. For the boys who have complained about the trough at the Eagle, I now feel your pain. Imagine you go into a bathroom and there is a trough on each side. Step up and get situated so everything lines up the way it's supposed to and you don't fall through. While you have a little wall sheilding you from your neighbor on the side... there is nothing to keep you from seeing the person across from you. Except, I suppose, that you are supposed to be facing sideways. I have never gone to the bathroom so fast in my life. I'm sorry everyone in China has to talk about the bathrooms and spitting. Someone from a 2nd story spit on my arm tonight. The only thing that made up for it is I had this chicken (white meat, no bones) and ginger stir fry at a Thai restaurant for only $1.00. $1.50 if you count the soda.

So, then it's a bone jarring bus ride to Xiding – a one yak town if ever there was one. We get a room at the guesthouse, which is also the bus stop, and go to the restaurant in town for some fried pork and fried potatoes. Yum.

Afterwards we go walking around the mountains, which are covered with tea bushes, and Sarah starts playing her flute. It was all rather lovely, though she's not very good but I'm sure that fact will be romanticized away in time. Then, as the sun was setting, we started picking these little orange berries and eating them. They were yummy.

After the lights were off, every noise I heard, I was convinced the market was starting and it was time to get up. Knocking on another door, talking, tractor going up the hill, the whipping sound of someone convincing an animal to go up the hill. Between that and the hard as concrete bed, I didn't sleep much. Finally about 7:30 we got up and went to the middle of town (about 10 feet from the outskirts of town).

What had been an empty plaza the night before was now filled to the brim with people. Most of the people were Dai (the majority minority group down here) while others were Aini (who are Anka if you and they are in Thailand). The Aini women either had a red and white scarf on their head OR this fully decked out metal Grace Jones kind of headdress thing. It was cool - and yes, I took a lot of photos.

Mostly for sale was food. Vegetables, potatoes, honeycomb complete with bees, fish in a pile some still flopping, and pork sitting in the sun and cut to order. There were also shoes, shampoo, music, etc. for sale.

I ended up buying some bananas from this old woman who then sat me down in her seat and when I started trying to sell her bananas to passers buy, started giving me tea leaves, some fruit that was I don't know what and telling me that this fabric I bought could be used to make a purse like all the women had or a jacket or these leg warmers that they all wear. I started taking pictures with the digital camera, then with the polaroid... lordy it all broke loose with everyone wanting their picture. It was totally fun. Then the woman took my hand and started leading me around the market showing me what I could buy to eat and where to find a purse. She hugged me goodbye when we left.

And leave we did... after lunch, we began a 4 hour 16km hike. From 12-4... I'm convinced the hottest worst time of the day. Sarah started seeming more and more like David Carradine's kung fu character. She's got a shaved head and was wearing this little cone hat and she would just walk and walk and walk. Was I dead on the trail behind her? She don't know. I was not pleased.

At the top of the mountain, I was commenting on the lovely view and taking pictures of the valley... I didn't realize we were going to hike down into it! At one point, she decided to try a different route. This one went along the side of the mountain, through a field of banana trees (which was good because they were the only thing that stopped us from sliding all the way down) across a goat trail and finally to some flat land.

I must say, though. Once we finally got down there, it was like how you imagine China should be. Fields of sugar cane and rice with people farming them, yaks tied up to pole benefitting us all somehow with their chewin' and pooin'. We walked to this Dai village and when we got there Sarah realized that this wasn't the one she was aiming for. Fantastic. Now where do we sleep?

In China nothing is done right away, there seems to be a lot of beating around the bush. So, we hung out at this shop where little kids were laying on the pool table and the traveling doctor had pulled up her chair and was examining people as they came in from the fields.

Evenutally, Sarah started chatting this one lady up and that led to another and so on and so on. The breaking point was when an older lady (who wanted me to know she was 66) came up to me and said "Hello". Then she mimed that the berries I had just eaten would give me (from the looks and sound of it) explosive diarreah. Hooray. But now the miming and joking was on and soon the camera was out. It turns out, I was the first foreigner who had come through their village - and what a commotion. Pretty soon, there was the age exchange, more joking and a miming frenzy.

Just so you know, the fashion, if you want to be first on your block to have it... Easter bonnets and gold teeth. The gold teeth seem to be mostly the older women.... the other older women don't have so many teeth. And younger women seem to sport the Easter bonnets. Walking down the road, going to the store, working with the rice. Every day is Easter here.

We ended up staying with a family who had the traditional Dai house... wooden house on stilts with you in the top and the pigs and chickens living below you. No wonder why most of the flus start in China. They did have a recent addition of concrete which is where we slept - hot but no rats!

While we were sitting and I had convinced 10 girls to teach me how to count to 10 in Dai (all I remember is that 5 is ha and 6 is ho) I heard a banging and looked out the window. Papa was grabbing at an eel that was sliding across the floor and then banging it's head against a bowl where his brother lay already knocked out. Hmmm, I thought.

Later, we go into the stick house for dinner. I see the bowl with the eels which are now sliced open and covered in blood. Anyone going to rinse those off? No. Mama is going to take some stuffing that she just chopped up, put in in the flayed eel, bend it in half and tie it with bamboo. Then it's off to be deep fried in pork fat! How I wish I didn't see that. I convinced myself that if boling water kills germs, boiling oil must do wonders. It was actually tasty. It certainly was fresh. There was also some sour, hot green I don't know what, some beef, pickled radish and boiled cabbage. And lots of rice. It was good but I only ate a little as I was scarred by the woman's miming earlier in the day.

At 6:30 the next morning everyone was up and we had some sticky rice with many of last nights dishes plus fried up little fish (which I just couldn't eat) and fried pork skin (which I tried but I'll stick with potato chips). Even though the food was not my usual selection, it was amazing how hospitable these people were considering they didn't know us a few hours before we were in their home. The woman now has taped on her window a few polaroid pictures and a postcard of Chinatown.

We left and were going to have to walk 1.5 hours to the next town to catch a bus but two of the girls from the village gave us a ride on the back of their bikes. You have to let her get a running start then try to run up and jump on the back over the wheel and sit sideways. Now I landed wrong and my butt was too far forward so I was holding up my legs and using my backpack to try to balance. It was like doing a giant situp... but better than walking. After awhile, we had to get off. We walked some and then got a ride in the back of a truck - most excellent.

We came back this afternoon and I spent all afternoon walking around in the blazing heat getting my money and buying a plane ticket to go to Lijiang tomorrow. Though now I hear from Mary Kay and a travel agent in Kunming that all travel to Lijiang is banned and the sights will be closed. I'm in the same province so I think I can fly there but what will I do? Plus, if travel from province to province is banned, I don't know how Mary Kay and I will meet or how I will get out of Yunnan. More and more I feel like Patricia Arquette in that movie where she was in Burma and mostly she laid around looking hot and miserable and every now and then she looked at border guards wishing she could leave - that's all I remember but it's starting to be how I feel. I'll figure something out.

Oh, also. When you ask someone a question and the answer is "yes". No one says yes, they say "uh" or sometimes "uh, uh, uh" if they are trying to tell you, "yes, yes, that's it exactly".

So there you have it. Thanks for listening, thanks for writing back and I'll catch you with part 5 from Lijiang.


Wednesday, April 23, 2003

China Unmasked 3

It was the worst of times, it was the best of times?

Well, Monday morning, I rescued my ATM card only to have it still not work. I've got all the cash I have plus a loan from the bank of Mary Kay.

After accidentally spending $25 on brunch in the hotel where I got my card (not a good idea when you've only got $400) I took a cab to the airport, a bumpy plane to Kunming... sat around in the airport for 3 hours.. then took a plane to Jinghong, got a minibus to the $10/night hotel (which I hear someone else is only paying $5 for and I am being ripped off) and spent the evening getting sick (from my $25 brunch?). At least I have my own bathroom.

The next morning I got up and found a cafe where the guide I was looking for had moved to the US and there were no other tourists. Had some ginger tea and toast then found a place to send a whiny, panicky email to Mary Kay and became convinced I wanted to go home.

When I went back out in the afternoon... I found some other tourists from England, Germany & Canada and struck up some conversations. I also found the other guide that can take me to the Thursday market. So all is much better.

I went to some lame ass park where there were a bunch of peacocks, people representing the different minority groups in the area that were supposed to be dancing but just were sitting around listening to Chinese disco and then I was accosted by young girls who gave me a massage for $2.50, which was fabulous except My shoulders are sore from the one girls’ strong poky fingers. Ow...

The trek will be two days and will involve staying in a Dai family house, which is where Mary Kay stayed and heard the rats running around. Mm. Maybe it's not rat season anymore? Well, when in Xiding...

Last night I went by the night market at the foot of the Mekong river. People set up for you to shoot balloons, like at a carnival, a tent of young dancing girls in red skirts and little black bras who weren't really dancing but at least they weren't stripping, and Dai bbq. Pick out your fish wrapped in lemongrass or other meat and vegetable delights and they will cook it up for you right there. Also rows and rows of pool tables where people hang out and play.

Okay, I'm off to breakfast and then to try and cram 2 days of trekking requirements into a small backpack.

Catch up with you over the weekend.


I'll be back on Friday and have to let you know about it.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

China Unmasked 2

Hi All,

We've been reading the news about the jump in cases. Mary Kay is waiting to get confirmation about what will happen to her vacation from school.

I'm on the move to Jinghong this morning. I've got to take a bus to Guangzhou, try to get someone from the bank to get my ATM card out of the machine. (In China the numbers 123 are at the bottom so it is a bad idea to only remember the pattern of your PIN - do learn from my bad).

Friday I hung out at the Clifford Estates buying food at the store and watching the chickens butchered while you wait counter. Fascinating like a traffic accident only.

That night someone in Mary Kay's building had a Seder and we went and learned all about Passover. I also learned that wasabi makes a poor substitute for horseradish and when combinded with some apple and cinnamon concoction, I feel the bitterness indeed.

Saturday we went to another town and bargained up a storm at a market. I got a pig, which I've learned says something all about good fortune on it's head. Hooray. We also saw lots of horses with monkeys on their backs. Since I am the year of the monkey and Mary Kay is the year of the horse, she had to get one and I will look for another. Apparently, monkey and horse people are supposed to be good friends!

Saturday night was comedy and improv on the roof of their building. Most excellent and well received.

Yesterday, we had an Easter brunch complete with chocolate eggs, pancakes and mimosas! Then we took the bus into Guangzhou to go to the fabric market. I'm getting a suit made which is a copy of one from the J. Crew catalog. There it cost a little over $300. The cost for me buying the fabric and having it made? $38. So excellent. I'm also getting other stuff made and will pick it up when I swing back through town. After that, I lost my ATM and here we are.

I plan on going to Jinghong, then Lijang and hopefully meeting up with Mary Kay in Guilin but we need to see what happens.

I am being safe, washing my hands and do have the face masks and I will continue to do so.

This will probably be the last email for a few days until I figure out what's what at the next stop.

Talk to y'all again soon.


Thursday, April 17, 2003

China Unmasked 1

Hello My Friends,

I have arrived and I am fine. I'm hanging out in Mary Kay's apartment while she finishes school. When she's back it's yoga, food and massages!

The flight to Korea was only 12 hours, a nice surprise, as I was thinking it was much longer. Fairly uneventful and few face masks at this point.

After 4 hours of walking all over the airport, sleeping on the chairs, changing money and reading magazines, we finally left for Guangzhou. Some of the flight attendants were wearing masks and they handed them out to everyone on the plane. I would say 1/5 of people wore them... until we were ready to deplane. Then about 1/3 of people put them on, including me.

As I was filling out my quarrantine form, I contemplated checking the box saying I was having trouble breathing because I was. Not anything SARS related... wearing the facemask was like trying to breathe through a maxi pad. With wings! By the time I got to baggage claim, I was fogging up my own glasses and giving myself a heart attack so I took it off. I will try the ones I brought along... they don't seem so upsetting.

First impressions - Guangzhou is very grey. The sky is grey, the buildings are grey. Drying clothes hang from every balcony, without exception, like so many wind chimes. I tried not to pay attention to the driving, though I did notice that my cab was going faster than the ambulance. I've made a mental note on how to transport myself to a hospital.

The Clifford Estates are a bit of a plastic bubble separated from the giant city. Mary Kay's apartment is tiny but fabu. I'm about to find out how fabu her shower is.

So, until I have something more interesting to say, just know that I arrived and all is well.