Thursday, July 1, 2010

China and Home

If anyone is reading this dang thing, my apologies for being such a bad correspondent. I wasn't able to get into the blog during my three weeks in China (except at one hotel that had a "tube" to Hong Kong, whatever that means). I assume the Chinese government has a firewall that prevents gibberish being put on the internet from their territory. Can one blame them?

It took me a month, from returning home, to get my internet connection restored at my home, what with being slow off the mark calling a service provider and a two week trip to Georgia to see a lovely niece married and to join in a family vacation (where I collected more mosquito bites than I did in four months in Asia - but I loved the Georgia trip, truly I did). I have no explanation for the last month at all.

May 6, 2010. Back to Lao Cai, Vietnam, and a walk across a bridge to "a little used border crossing with a difficult reputation" (I paraphrase from my guidebook). Lots of freelance currency traders on both sides of the border. I didn't know the exchange rate, so simply asked for more than anyone was willing to pay. One guy followed me up to the Vietnam-side passport control desk. The Vietnamese border police politely waited while he finished his sales pitch. Is this even legal?

On the Chinese side I got pulled out of the passport control line. I was the only westerner. My passport disappeared for about 45 minutes. I was offered and accepted a cup of tea. Back into line with a passport that I expected to burst into flames, through the passport control and into the customs line where I had the single most complete customs examination I'd ever been through. My guidebook warned that this crossing was known for confiscating copies of the guidebook. I had spent more time than I'd like to admit carefully obscuring my China guidebook. I was indeed asked if I had a guidebook. And I gave one of those "truthful in a negotiating sense" answers by saying yes, I did, handing over one for Vietnam for examination. The customs official saw my other guide but left it untouched. My efforts at disguise were so successful that even I could barely bring myself to touch the thing. So after about two and a half hours (which, come to think of it, is about the time to get through the lines at Kennedy Airport), I left the Chinese border station with my possessions, including my China guidebook and my suspect passport.

And into the hands of a genial cab driver who got $4 from me for a 20 minute drive that was a circle around town back to a bus station 20 meters from the border post.

Things improved after that. I quickly got a bus to Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province and my goal for the night. It was a really nice bus on extravagantly nice roads for a good portion of the way. We stopped mid way in the 8 hour trip at a noodle stall where I collected a small crowd of would be noodle-spicing instructors.

After not much adventure I got into a hotel in Kunming and soon into a far hipper restaurant than I'd go to in New York or London. A singer and four piece band. The singer was very nicely slinky and belted out American standards. The base player had a Fender. The crowd was drinking western beer, French wine and a goodly amount of single malt whiskey.
So, I am now in the far south of China. Yunnan and the surrounding provinces have not always identified closely with China, either for reasons of trade, with Yunnan's strong historic commercial links to Southeast Asia, or ethnicity, with even now much of the population being other than Han Chinese. I had three weeks to see what I was going to see of China and spent two of those weeks looking at things not all that Chinese.
Though a lot of it looked very Chinese to me. Kunming is a beautiful city with a lake on one side and hills around much of the rest. There were beautiful temples that looked historic (Chinese restoration methods seem to favor the "pull it down and make it over" approach) and were certainly nice to tour. And good museums. And pretty parks with people exercising and spitting.
May 9. Next stop was Lijiang, towards the north and west of Yunnan. Lijiang was the old capital of the Naxi people. Its old town is very pretty and has been comprehensively restored in the mode Chinese. It features a number of lovely streams running through it, complete with nice little clumps of water grasses and swimming koi. On my first day I saw some workmen remove a manhole cover from the bottom of one of the streams to get access to the less attractive underground stream beneath it. Lijiang has a very nice, very restored palace, and lots of other things to see, and restaurants for eating and shops for shopping.
It has a Naxi orchestra. They introduce the senior members of the orchestra by name. You have to be at least 80 to merit this attention. There were many introductions to make.
It has Naxi grandmas that dance in the main square.
It has Naxi men that show less energy than grandmas. Lijiang was undeniably pleasant. I meant that to sting.
May 12. My next stop was another historic Yunnan city, Dali. I hired a driver for the day and took the long route from Lijiang, making a few stops at what turned out to be some of the most memorable things I saw in South China. Shibaoshan lies midway, ish, between Lijiang and Dali and has some beautiful stone relief carvings that date from the 9th century. A few miles from the stone carvings is the wonderful Baoxiang Temple at the base of a cliff, with shrines in various states of repair hanging off the cliff. There were great warning signs on the steep trail up to the temple about monkeys and children which no doubt made perfect sense in Chinese, but with an English translation that ran something like "beware of screaming young children with their hands held by adults that are teasing the monkeys." I didn't see any such behavior, so I cannot give a report.

We also stopped at Shaxi, which looked like I'd sort of want Lijiang to look like. This was once a major stopping point on the tea-horse road (I don't really know what that means, but I think it amounted to the route followed by traders traveling from China to Tibet and back) until something odd happened with a local river and lake and trade routes moved elsewhere. What is left had not been visibly "restored" though it is in reasonable repair and looked nicely antique and authentic.

In belated fairness to Lijiang, I liked my hotel, the Zen Garden Hotel (a beautiful courtyard and wonderful breakfasts accompanied by live music being only part of the charm), a lot and the restaurants were very good.

Dali is another once a capital of another non-Han Chinese ethnic group. In this case, the people are the Bai. The Bai had quite the nice kingdom going in the 8th century. I think they were the people responsible for the good rock carvings at Shibaoshan. Good city walls, a really good and very famous Qianxun Pagoda from the 9th century, some very pretty if rebuilt temples and a terrific hike along a ridge up the bordering mountains.

The terrific hike starts, at least approached as I did, with a gondola ride up the mountain. After a pleasant though not short walk along a very good path, the way down is a typical ski chairlift. At some point my brain sort of shut down. I'm standing waiting for the lift thinking how delightful it is to get on a chairlift without the bother of skies and the slipperiness of snow. I'd not really thought through how the other end would work. For any non-skiers, the normal end of a chairlift is a downward ramp. One stands up from the chair on a bit of flat and with a slight push glides down the ramp while the chair passes overhead. This approach requires skies and snow.

I outran the chair, as doubtless many had done before.

I also got out to some of the villages surrounding Bai, and saw a dance performance - I've done a fair amount of that - and also saw a very impressive embroidery machine with 32 sets of needles making 32 identical pieces of beautiful enough patterns of the sort sold in Dali and Lijiang as hand made. I suppose the thread is mounted on the machine by hand. That was disconcerting.

May 15. I then took a bus back to Kunming before traveling north to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou Province.
Along the way I gained some possible insight into how foreign tourists might appear to the lovely Chinese people.
May 18. Leaving Guiyang, which has its charms, I headed to Kaili in Eastern Guizhou. Kaili is a not very big city in a very hilly district surrounded by Miao (and I think that is H'mong to you and me) and Dong minority villages. Lots of interesting villages.
Lots of villagers doing pretty normal things.

Lots of markets selling beautiful things
and not such beautiful things. I came, I shopped, I left without a pre-plucked chicken.

Kaili was misty and cool enough for a sweater to come in handy. At night locals would gather at a square for very intense sessions of a complicated checker like game and for dancing. Not too surprisingly, perhaps, women outnumbered men at the dancing (with ratios more than flipped at the checker tables). So women happily enough danced with women. A bit more intriguingly, a few old men were also dancing with each other.

May 21. Then back to Guiyang and my longest train ride of this trip up to Xi'an, home of the fabled terracotta warriors from the Chin Dynasty.
I expected the warriors to be very good and they were very good.
But, I did not know about the bronze chariots dug from the same area. I guess the unexpected has a leg up, and these wowed me.
Xi'an has a number of other world class things to see, including the later Han Dynasty imperial tombs, and
some yet later Tang Dynasty buildings, like the very nicely named Big Goose Pagoda. I briefly knew the story behind the name, but this was lost in decayed gray cells.

There are also a couple of great museums and a lovely mosque and several other temples. There is a weekly antique market, where I bought things without knowing what they were. Xi'an: Its not just about terracotta.

May 25. Last stop, Beijing. Oh dear. My state of mind was somewhat odd, this being the end of a four month trip. Longing for friends and family and my very own bed. But ....
I saw the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. I saw the Summer Palace. I saw the Lama Temple. I saw the Altar of Heaven. Beijing certainly has a large number of wonderful things to see and do (like eat Peking Duck and shop, naturally) and I tried to do a big slug of them. But this was my third visit to Beijing and by its end I still hadn't made it to the Great Wall. Some flaw in planning there. Some excuse for trip four there too.

Beijing was beautiful. The first day came with crisp blue skies and lovely weather. It can happen!

Then a very uninteresting trip to the airport and home. So that was that.

Except for the very time consuming task of opening and sorting the souvenirs that filled a suitcase and the thirteen boxes I'd mailed home from various places and at various times. That unpacking would not be so interesting in the telling, but it was fascinating in the doing, if one appreciates dozens of "what was I thinking" moments.

But the sorting is done, the bills are paid, and now the blog is complete. Thank you for your kind attention.

Oh, I leave August 3 for India and the start of a three month trip.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Vietnam, Part 2 (through May 6)

The train ride to Hanoi was a nice riot. I got on at 7 AM. About 8 I thought I'd try the dining car for a second, better, breakfast. I walked the wrong direction and passed lots of cabins with lots of drinkers. Someone was grilling squid in a wash room (I ate a piece, delicious). On the walk back I was almost bodily dragged into a cabin for very advanced rice wine drinkers. I got by with eating a bit of dried fish.

When I found the dining car every surface and a good portion of the floor was covered with empty beer cans. A large crowd was singing very loudly. The large crowd took off in a rush. The staff made an effort with the empties. The train stopped at a station while I was waiting for my order. I saw porters loading cases of beer through the door to the kitchen. Then a tapping on the window. Would I mind lifting some cases of beer in through the window? Of course not.

I think a Hanoi football squad beat rivals at an away game in HCMC. Hence the high spirits of the returning fans.

Hanoi is a noisy, polluted, lovable city. One guy's view.

It has lots and lots of motorcycles. One could fairly note that HCMC has more, but Hanoi seems to have less room for them to, urh, express themselves. It seems very immediate in Hanoi. Roads are for motorcycles to drive in. Both ways on one way streets. Sidewalks are for motorcycles to park on.
This leaves walkers a choice of which bit of motorcycle turf to trespass on.
Local folk, made of tough stuff, do just fine. All kinds of commerce and transport works in the streets.

Hanoi is also pretty. It has modernized, but seems not to have lost its past. And it has lots of past. It is having its 1000 birthday this year. The center of the old quarter has a lake named Hoan Kiem, with a temple, and a legend involving a turtle. It also has a stuffed 500 pound turtle that isn't in the legend but is big enough to deserve a story. Does the turtle's head look like a seal to you?

The lake is used by city folk to breath a bit, couples to stroll and old men to stretch.

Hanoi has other nice things. I very much liked the Temple of Literature, appealing in one stroke to my book thing and my travel thing. It has very nice water puppet theater, at which I took very poor photos. Water puppets are theater in a pond. It is backed up by a small orchestra and a chorus that sings the story in Vietnamese. The puppets are controlled by rods and cords that run under the water. The puppeteers stand in the water behind a bamboo screen and make the magic happen. Puppets leap, spout fire, pass objects back and forth. It is also funny and sweet.

Having been to this city a couple of times, I gave a pass on some very good things to see. One thing I saw for the first time in the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology. I very much recommend it to anyone in the city with even a slight interest in hill tribes or who enjoy climbing up scary ladders at the outdoor tribal building portion of the museum.

Back in town and walking the markets, I passed several roast puppy stalls.
OK, as I mentioned, Hanoi is polluted. I was happy enough to leave town for Halong Bay. I was a bit spooked at being at sea for three days with the same strangers. My boat, the Prince 3 from Indochine Junks, had four cabins and seven crews. It featured lavish, prolonged meals with very complicated decorations, like the watermelon, carrot junk below. People were to doped with food to get on each others' nerves.
There was a day of kayaking. There was exploring some caves. There was cruising the very beautiful bay.

I got back in Hanoi on May 1. Which is a holiday. Hanoi seemed to be enjoying a day off, but otherwise going about its life, though there were a goodly number of decorations noting the event. I got on a train ride that night to the mountains of Northeastern Vietnam. I'd bought the train ticket some days in advance through a travel company. One of the "perks" of the purchase was a free transfer to the train station. At the appointed hour a not overly large fairly mature man met me in the lobby of a hotel and, trailed by a couple of porters, the driver introduced me to his small my Vietnam standards motor bike. I had a little conversation with myself, then helped the driver put my large bag between him and the handlebars (he couldn't see over the bag, but could see around it a bit) and slung my second bag and my day pack on my back and got in behind him. The suspension bottomed out immediately. Because safety is first, I also put on a helmet with a strap that very nearly connected under my throat.

Drama at the train station regarding whether I really had a train ticket, which turned out fine. A very nice four person sleeper. Off we go. The train ended at a border town with China named Lao Cai. So I am standing in the rain in Lao Cai, being asked 10 times the normal right to ride in a local bus to Bac Ha, a village about 2 hours away. I demure. I find a more expensive taxi and head off.
I got to Bac Ha in time for its weekly and hugely entertaining market day. A big draw was the seemingly locally dominate hill tribe, the Flower H'mong. The women dressed lavishly and in every color all at once.

My train ride had ended at about 5:30 AM and breakfast was in order. I joined the locals at a stall in the market for noodles, which were very good.
Lots of interesting things for sale. Suspicious looking pipes used to smoke the local tobacco. Puppy dogs, which may or may not have been for sale as pets. And a goodly chance to buy a water buffalo or horse at very fair prices. The last I take on the word of a Dutch expatriate I chatted with. He'd bought two horses the day before. That made me feel better about my own souvenir shopping.

Two youthful buffalo salesmen.
After a couple of hours eating and shopping and looking around the local temple, I got back in the waiting taxing and headed off for Sapa. Sapa is very much built around the tourist trade. It has a lovely mountain location covered with rice terraces and fields of hemp. It was a hill station during French colonial times, though a few wars have removed most traces of that. It was a major opium production center during French colonial times, but the times they have been a changing, so no obvious traces of that. And I am assured that the hemp is only for weaving.

Now local and foreign tourists come to see the beautiful and cool terrain and to enjoy the very developed marketing skills of the local hill tribe population. The most evident of the hill tribes are the Black H'mong
and the Red Dzao.

Most local people couldn't spend their time selling to tourists (though it didn't always feel like that), and did the hard things that people do in this region. Not a lot of machines to help out. This is pretty clearly a hard life, for all the bit of commerce with tourists may help out. Strange thing rural poverty. In some, uneasy to say out loud way, I and other tourists come to such places because of the picturesque lifestyle of the locals, which is to say, because of rural poverty that has a certain time honored sense to it. Hmmm.

To be sure, it is not all hard work, at least if you are a kid.

Three days in Sapa, taking hikes during the day, shopping, getting a massage (I had to wait a bit, and was kindly fed sour plums with salt during the delay). I spent a strangely enjoyable couple of hours at the Sapa post office, trying to mail off, well lots of stuff including some items I'd been told in Saigon couldn't be mailed. There was not a lot of English spoken at the Sapa post office. The clerk came out to look through my pile and help fill out the customs forms. "What is this?" "Huh?" Pantomime followed. Apparently I can be quite funny when I don't try.

And this brings me to May 6 and the end of Vietnam. I have one last border to cross and three weeks before coming home.

Blogger's note. I had written most of this blog while in Sapa. When I got up on May 6 to finish it, the draft had become a bunch of panic inducing code gibberish. I couldn't get back into the blog while in China. I have no excuse of merit for nearly two months of delay since I got home.