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Korea Is Not China

Seoul, South Korea

Tonight at dinner, I found myself clutching a pair of long metal chopsticks in my right hand, and a long metal spoon in my right, and using both to shovel into my mouth the little apetizer-type dishes of kimchee, bean sprouts, cole slaw, pickled onions/garlic/jalepenos, and the main dish of rice in a hot stone pot with fish eggs, slivered carrots and zucchini, and shredded seaweed. Korean food is much easier to eat alone than Chinese food. To start with, so far with everything I have ordered they immediately bring out 3-5 little dishes of pickled things to crunch on or mix with the main meal. So there is automatically variety. And I am fast becoming a big fan of the pickled things. They are usually quite tasty.

Yesterday, I went to dinner with my friend and we got delicious seafood hotpot. Beforehand, though, we saw a photo exhibit that kind of discussed the interaction with nature in the Korean landscape. It was kind of boring, though. So then we went to the history museum. There, they have an interesting exhibit on remembering the war in the 1950's. Coming from recently having been in several socialist/post-socialist countries, it was interesting to see again the more American/democratic perspective of that era. It was basically what you would expect, so I won't go into a lot of detail. Lot's of propoganda posters and articles used by all sides during the war. There was video of what seemed like very moving accounts of family reunifications, but unfortunately I don't understand any Korean. The other exhibit we saw in the museum was a large model of the city that lit up to show what was being built, what the city plans to build, etc. It was all very modern-looking and impressive and scarilly tall and then you think about all the relocation and destruction that will have to happen for all of these plans to come about.

Today, I went to one of the palaces in the city, Gyeongbokgung. Behind it is the presidential palace, in front of which a group of Chinese tourists was taking pictures while guards looked on, bored. Next to it is the National Folk Museum, which has a good overview of Korean history and culture. Gyeongbokgung looks pretty similar to the Chinese style of palaces. But it is a lot smaller than the forbidden city. It seems more spread out, almost, not so cramped. And stylistically it doesn't seem Chinese. While most of the archetecture is very similar to that in China, the details are, well, Korean.

Now, I have been struggling with trying not to compare everything here to China. It is hard not to do, even though I am trying to look at everything freshly. But the problem is it is a traditionally Confucian society that follows the basic principles of fengshui. There are some obvious similarities to be found. And as I've mentioned in my last post, there are a lot of stylistic similarities, the simple things like how the sidewalks are paved. This is decidedly similar to China, while being decidedly different from any sidewalk in the U.S. But beyond these basic things, the main section of downtown looks more like Washington D.C. than anywhere I've seen in China, and the meandering neighborhoods surrounding it have a character completely of their own. People don't wear crazy flamboyant outfits like the Chinese, they don't stare at me as I pass them on the street, the drivers seem like they actually had to take a test to get a licence, and things mostly seem to cost around American prices. But after having said all of this, my task for tomorrow, which I will work really hard at, will be to try to stop making so many comparisons. We'll see if I succeed. I guess that overall I am just in shock at no longer being in China.

permalink written by  agentsarainkunming on July 17, 2010 from Seoul, South Korea
from the travel blog: Korea
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First 24 Hours in South Korea

Seoul, South Korea

Yesterday, early in the morning, I left my house in Kunming, finally found a cab, and flew with all of my tons of stuff to Seoul. After a lay-over in Shanghai, I got into Korea in the late afternoon, and found that I could no longer use Chinese to get around. Despite this, I managed to accomplish all of the necessary things you need to do when entering a country: find an atm, use a pay-phone to call my friend here, and get on the correct bus to the hostel I'd booked on-line. Everything went really smoothly. Pretty much everyone I tried to talk to spoke English, which I was a little surprised by but was very convenient. I can only say "hello" in Korean, so I'm completely in the dark. But there are signs in English all over the place (and a fair amount in Chinese, too).

The hostel I'm staying at is pretty funky. Every wall has a different color, true to its online description, and they play a crazy mix of hipster-esque/Asian-asthetic music in the downstairs lobby/sitting room. It is located downtown near several "hip" neighborhoods, and several palaces and temples. Last night, I met my friend and her sisters for Japanese food and then walked around one area that is FILLED with coffee shops. Literally nearly every building had a coffee shop. And they were all filled with people at 9pm.

Stylistically, Seoul so far seems very similar to a lot of Chinese cities, especially Qingdao (due to the natural geography of sea and mountains, as well as similar archetectural styles). There are the bumpy yellow paths for the blind on the sidewalk, among other similar kinds of streetsigns and what-not. The buildings are half ugly like Chinese buildings tend to be, but then the other half are lower to the ground, some more traditional wood, some brick. There are big main streets, but then narrow winding streets surrounding them, with low buildings and cars that actually slow down as they pass you (I've been in shock, I don't fear for my life in traffic so far).

Today I went and got a lunch set that included about a thousand little bowls, including a fish soup, kimchee (a spicy pickled cabbage, for those who don't know), pickled onion greens of some kind, maionaise-covered cabbage, pickled zucchini with little dried shrimp, diced sausage of the plastic-y variety, some scallions in a sesame sauce, and rice. There was a box of dried seaweed squares on the table into which you could fold up the various food items. It was pretty good. I am a big fan of pickled vegetables here, as well as dried seaweed. I'll see how it compares to the next meals I have...

permalink written by  agentsarainkunming on July 15, 2010 from Seoul, South Korea
from the travel blog: Korea
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SMS, texti, short letter, text message

Kunming, China

“Chinglish” is so amazing because it often really just literally translates how people speak and write. With that in mind, I thought I would share with you some of the text messages I receive from my cell phone service provider and advertisers. Sometimes it’s unclear who is sending the message. They usually tell me about Kunming holidays, concert promotions, or are just inspirational messages. I have included the telephone number, date and time in the three messages translated below alongside their original Chinese text… just in case you were wondering. I’ve translated as directly as I can, while also attempting to make sense in English.

10658334 01/06/2010 19:33

Understand that the sky is blue, greyness should not cover the spirit all day long; understand that youth is beautiful, young adulthood should not be corroded by wicked conduct; understand that the travels of human life are rough, faith and conviction should not disappear within setbacks.

10086 04/06/2010 16:13

The theme of the activities for this June’s “Safe Production Month” is: safety development, prioritizing prevention. Safety is a blessing covering life, the province’s Safe Production Committee will proclaim

10658334 25/05/2010 18:41

Love is mighty, love has no regrets, furthermore love is pure, when there are harmonious lovers, it is suitable to send a text message, which will surely make your lover’s road a song of triumph.

permalink written by  agentsarainkunming on June 7, 2010 from Kunming, China
from the travel blog: CHINA
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A Return to Blogging

Kunming, China

Well, after a half-a-year hiatus, I have decided to come back to the blogging sphere, hopefully as much as I can for my last month and a half here in Kunming. Over my time here, a lot has happened. I will not regale you with hashing out the details of life. Rather, I'm going to just jump right in to the present, and hopefully continue to share with you a little of how I experience this country.

At this point in time, I am feeling a bit of China-overload. As is now probably become iconic to all of my parents' email forwardees, I am sick of having to think of crossing the street as a cultural experience in order to keep my cool and get through the day. While I try to be as open-minded as possible, it is hard at this point to keep from being judgmental about things I see here as being, well, problematic. There is the traffic, which maybe if there was a single stop-sign in this city could easily be taken care of. Oh, that and if people stuck to the correct side of the street. There is the difficulty of communicating. I think that I have had fewer communication problems in the countries I have been to where I don't speak a word of the language. And I have now been studying Chinese for almost four years now. I could go on.

I am glad to see that the U.S. media seems to be covering the school stabbings that have been happening around China in the past couple months. For those who have not heard about this, citizens have been going to schools, mostly kindergartens or early elementary schools, and stabbing children and teachers. Approximately 5 independent instances of this have happened since March. It's really gruesome.

In trying to explain this phenomenon, Michelle Tsai wrote an opinion article on Slate discussing the Chinese approach to conflict resolution. I am including a link to this article, and mentioning the stabbings above, because I mostly agree with Tsai's insights. As people often keep their feelings and opinions to themselves, about social issues as well as personal ones, they leave open the possibility that these feelings will explode. This is one explanation for the stabbings. You can read the article here:

As my 70 year old tutor has described to me, and as I have experienced first-hand, there is a vast difference between peoples' private lives and public lives. Privately, people are very polite. Whenever my Chinese friends come to my house they bring gifts of fruit or little trinkets. They are very polite and warm. However, when you stand in line at the grocery store, you must fight for your place. It's a race to the cashier as my cart gets slammed by little old ladies who otherwise resemble the neighbors who sweetly and politely greet me in the stairwell. Really, you are lucky if there is even a line at all. The crowd getting on a bus often resembles a mosh pit. As Tzai points out, people are usually expected to resolve any issues that might arise in this environment on their own, without the aid of the police or the law. From friends who have taken the driver's test, I have learned that the correct answer to the question of how to deal with a car accident is not a) to involve the police, not c) to leave the scene of the accident, but b) to personally negotiate with the other driver. People are expected to take care of their own problems. They are not supposed to look to authority figures to figure out the confusion on the ground - the authorities are busy dealing with larger issues pertaining to nationally cohesive Chinese social order. Rather, they should be figuring out their place and their problems independently.

I'm not sure what my larger conclusions are. The Chinese people are not a bloodthirsty group looking for revenge for personal or political infractions. Far from it. I think that most people want to steer away from conflict. They do not openly discuss political issues they disagree with for precisely this reason. But enough of my philosophizing about things I'm sure I don't know enough about. As for my experiences here, while I will be glad to no longer bicker with shop-owners and taxi drivers, I will miss the welcoming of my teachers and neighbors into their homes, the generosity of friends, and watching they way people go out and about to enjoy a beautiful Kunming day as they fly kites, dance and do Tai Chi, or stroll through the park. And maybe sometimes I'll even miss the mosh pit on the way into the bus.

permalink written by  agentsarainkunming on May 21, 2010 from Kunming, China
from the travel blog: CHINA
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The Neighborhood

Kunming, China

My roommate got a really nice new camera, so he let me have fun with it around our neighborhood. Some pictures are taken by him or others. I actually attempted to take pictures of people so that you all could get a sense of the local population on a regular Sunday afternoon. We started off with lunch at The Chef's restaurant, so you can see his family as well. If you click on some of the pictures, I think you can see my descriptions of them. Unfortunately I don't think they are viewable on the blog post.

permalink written by  agentsarainkunming on December 6, 2009 from Kunming, China
from the travel blog: CHINA
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My Apartment

Kunming, China

For this entry, I thought I would try something else and just post pictures of my apartment directly into the entry. So, here is my apartment:

permalink written by  agentsarainkunming on December 5, 2009 from Kunming, China
from the travel blog: CHINA
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Little Sun

Kunming, China

This past week, the temperature dropped and it has been freezing. It’s only been around 0ºC at the coldest, but the problem is that the buildings are not equipped to protect against the weather. Kunming is known as the City of Eternal Spring, and apparently it never got cold in the winters until about 50 years ago when the PRC drained part of the lake, changing the micro-environment. Or something. Don’t I sound like I know what I’m talking about? Since then, the city, and surrounding areas have gotten more and more polluted, and of course the overall global climate has changed. Now Kunming can no longer truly claim to be the City of Eternal Spring because it actually gets cold now, and every once in a while it starts to snow. But they are kind of in denial about it and none of the buildings have any kind of central heating systems. This includes my apartment and classroom. Whenever I remark that it is pretty cold, people tend to respond with, “well, doesn’t it usually get much colder in your country around this time of year?” to which I reply that yes, it does, but it’s generally a little warmer when you go inside a building, rather than colder like what now happens here. The result of this weather change is that everyone sits around in class wrapped up in winter jackets, hats, scarves, mittens, and loses feeling in the feet. My household purchased a small portable electric heater, or as the word for small portable electric heater translates from Chinese, a “small sun” (xiao taiyang – your vocab word for the day; expect the quiz later on). Now, it is getting warmer, luckily, and the sun has come back out, for which I am very grateful. The rest of the winter will probably not provide the tropical temperatures I was secretly hoping for when I decided to come here, but it shouldn’t be nearly as cold/snowy/icy (even remotely) as winter-time New England.

Other highlights to relay are that I celebrated my first birthday in China. It was a good day, thanks to it falling on the day I have painting class, and to the great community of fellow students that I seem to have fallen into here. And, to “take the cake,” shall we say, I was sung “Happy Birthday” in Russian, Kazak, Hebrew, German, Italian, Spanish, Chinese and English.

permalink written by  agentsarainkunming on November 24, 2009 from Kunming, China
from the travel blog: CHINA
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The Chef's Son

Kunming, China

My roommates and I often go to a restaurant down the street from our house. Since the first night we went, the chef befriended us. He often would bring us a free dish, usually pickled cabbage or fried cheese or something interesting, and sometimes would sit a minute with us and chat. A couple weeks ago, he asked Sam, my blond roommate who speaks the best Chinese out of our group, if she was American and if she could start tutoring his son in exchange for us eating at the restaurant for free.

His son is nine years old, and like all kids in the Chinese school system he is learning English. He knows some basic words and phrases, but not too much. So, Sam has started to go every Sunday to meet with him and his mother in the upstairs part of the restaurant. After their first meeting, we all went over for lunch. The mother, the Chef’s Wife, greeted us very enthusiastically and started bringing over bowls and cups, which she selected very carefully to make sure were not cracked or dirty. Then, she brought a pot of tea over to our table and started to rinse off each bowl, into another bowl, and to rinse off sets of chopsticks and teacups. She said the tea was something she had specially brought over to the restaurant. She then started bringing dishes to the table. There were far too many for us to eat, which is generally the polite thing to do to welcome or thank people or just show your appreciation and respect while creating a good reputation or image. Luckily for us, though, the restaurant probably has the best food I’ve eaten in our neighborhood.

Meanwhile, we had also been introduced to the son, who was wearing an appropriately titled “monster” sweatshirt and an apron tied around his waste (don’t worry, he was wearing pants as well). He was “helping” with certain things around the restaurant, but mostly he was basically running around in circles, causing minor destruction in his wake. I think he could be best described as an ADHD case study, although, as I will soon get to, he is not much different from many of the other small children we have encountered recently. He is very cheerful and likes to joke around, making small jokes about or for us every now and then. I’m not really sure how it works for him to sit still for an hour while Sam tutors him, though. From what I’ve been told, I don’t think it actually works like that. I have a feeling his mother, who sits with them and every once in a while decides to scold him, is going to have learned far more English than him by the time Sam leaves. And, the situation works out well for us because we get free meals every week. Hopefully the rest of us will get to help Sam out a little so it’s not entirely her burden.

I have now taught two demo classes for a private English school. They have classes in the evenings and weekends, mostly for children and students. The first class I taught was for five seven-year-olds. They spend the entire Saturday morning at this school. During most of the hour that I sat in on their class and then taught a small lesson, they passed the time by falling out of their chairs, yelling at each other, and running around the small room. Focus was not really a goal of their regular teacher, who every once in a while would lose her patience and rap one of them on the head with a white-board marker. Other than that, she just yelled over them. During their break, which they spent running around their big common room yelling at each other, the teacher told me that they were very badly behaved and she thought it was because they came from rich families and were not used to being disciplined or scolded. She seemed pretty judgmental about it, but also resigned. She wasn’t about to be the one to start taking disciplinary action.

So that has been my recent experience with children in China learning English. I have not heard back from the school I did demo classes for, and I’m not really sure I will. I haven’t been told what class, time, or anything they actually need a teacher for, and I have a feeling they just like to bring in native English speakers to talk to their students every once in a while. I’ll keep up the job search though and see if anything else comes along.

permalink written by  agentsarainkunming on November 9, 2009 from Kunming, China
from the travel blog: CHINA
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Autumn break, trip to Tengchong and Nujiang

Tengchong, China

We had time off from school for the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China and the Mid-Autumn Festival. So, I went with three friends to the northwest of Yunnan, the province Kunming is in. The first city we went to was Tengchong, directly west of Kunming, almost to the Burmese border. We then took buses north along the border, and along the Nujiang (Nu River). It was a pretty great trip, and I feel like I got to see a different side of China from the major cities I have seen in the past. I kept a journal, which I have transcribed below, organized by day. I didn't edit for those of you who wanted a more complete picture, so skimming is encouraged (the most interesting part of the trip is probably "MONDAY," I think). Also, I have pictures up, even though I can't edit or organize them.

Ilaria and I left our apartment at around 6:30pm (that’s 18:30, for all of you running on “military time” like the rest of the world) to take a city bus to the bus station. It was the start of the vacation week – the next day would be the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic, and then two days later would be the Moon Festival. Most people were not working or going to school, and many of those were visiting their families or taking the opportunity to travel. Anyway, it took watching four completely packed busses going past us before we made it on one. When we realized we were not on the right bus, we had to get off and start the process over. So the beginning of our travels was already off to a hectic start. When we finally got to the bus station, we couldn’t even enter the gate. It was completely packed with people, who were so crammed together you wouldn’t have been able to wriggle your way through if you tried. The crowd finally started to move a little, and we made our way in. At the security checkpoint, we didn’t even bother to wait in the crowd of people who I guess you could say were lined up to go through the metal detectors. We just walked past through another set of doors, and nobody seemed to care in the slightest. It was reassuring about the state of security on long-distance buses. Now, at this point, we were faced with having to find a gate. No such thing was to be found. In the back of the station, outside, were lines of buses, which really could be more accurately described as a crowd of over a hundred busses all crammed into a parking lot. It took us forever to locate ours. It required making a new friend who then bugged us the entire time we were waiting to leave about giving him some foreign currency “to remember us by” and about when our other two friends would get there. At one point he accosted a pair of blond, western looking guys with bikes, hoping they were our missing Thai and Italian female travel companions (we actually ran into these two bikers later in our travels – the foreigner community in Kunming is pretty small and compact). Our bus was scheduled to leave at 8:20. Around 9:00, our bus emerged from the bevy of busses we were standing amongst. At around 9:30, the bus driver turned the car on and started to inch his way out f the station. It took about 15 minutes to do so, and then another 10 to make it out onto the street due to the rush hour traffic. And that was how we joined the throngs of people going home or on vacation for this major holiday week.
The bus was a sleeper bus, so not your average seats. Rather, there were about 40 short, narrow beds stacked two high and in three rows up and down the bus. It was a sight. And an experience, feeling nearly immobile in my narrow bunk, which in the middle and top of the bus made me feel like a was in a canoe as we bumped down the highway.
Actually, the first 9 or so hours were relatively smooth. We were on a major road which went until the city of Baoshan, which is directly west from Kunming. Somewhere around Baoshan, I woke up when the bus was stopped. The polic came on and looked at everyone’s ID’s. They took our passports off the bus, but came back after a few minutes and there didn’t seem to be any trouble. We started going again, but this time it was on a different road. Most of the time it felt like we were flying downhill, but I think it was just because we were on a windy, bumpy road. We arrived in Tengchong around 7:45am, at least an hour or two before we were supposed to have gotten there.

We checked into our hostel when we got into Tengchong, found some steamed, filled buns (baozi), and talked to the people at the front desk about getting a driver to take us to a the Peach Blossom Park. The driver showed up with her two sons, who looked about 5 and 8 years old. She explained that they were sick and so had to come along. I wasn’t really sure why, since it was a national holiday so they should not have had school anyway, but they were very cute and spent the ride like a couple of puppies bounding around on the front passenger seat together. It was kind of like stories of 1950’s America or something. Anyway, we bounced our way up a one lane cobblestone “highway” through the mountains in our “mianbaoche,” which literally means “bread loaf car” because minivans do kind of look like loaves of bread, don’t they? The scenery was absolutely beautiful. We passed bright green-yellow terraced fields of grains and tiny haystacks all lined up, donkeys and cows just standing about in the fields, workers carrying baskets on poles across their shoulders, every once in a while a cluster of buildings that could have been built a century ago, and the hills and mountains everywhere in sight. We paused for the older son to throw up out the window, which I didn’t particularly blame him for given all the bouncing. I think it would have been a scary ride, but knowing our driver’s sons were in the car with us kind of made me feel a little safer about her driving as we flew around bends on this narrow road – and luckily we only came across a few other vehicles, a couple motorbikes, some other mianbaoche, and a small logging truck.
The park was great. Like most (at least that I’ve seen) nature/tourist spots in China, there were mostly stairs that wound through the mountainside. There were hot springs, where the water is naturally hot-tub warm. So, they had constructed shallow swimming pools to bath/swim in. They were very pretty, and set amidst the gorgeous scenery of the mountain, along the way of a small path covered by tropical trees and even a waterfall overlooking one. So, we swam a bit in one on our way back. The path kept going, though, past the springs, past a rickety, swaying bridge over a gorge that we did NOT walk over, to the river, where we looked across to a dam, and the water rushing over giant boulders. Looking downriver, you could see the water winding between the mountains, which sloped up on either side. Elena, the Italian classmate with us, went across the river on a zip-line, but the rest of us were too scared. It seemed like it would have been pretty exhilarating, though, and she seemed to have fun. At this point, there were several huts, with people waiting around to help the occasional tourist fly across the zip-line, or to sell them water and snacks. There was even a donkey waiting in the blazing sun to carry your stuff for you.
When we got back to the entrance to the park, we got some snacks – sweet lemon water and strips of a very firm, almost chewy kind of tofu covered in spices and oils. I have had similar dishes around Yunnan and Kunming, and they are pretty tasty. Then, we headed back down the cobblestone highway on our way to some hot sulfer springs. We arrived at what really seemed more like a spa than a national nature reserve park. In fact, the spa there is probably actually the main attraction. But we bypassed it and headed into the park.
Apparently, the springs were discovered and started to be developed during the Ming dynasty. They are naturally boiling, though about 90ºC (high altitude reduces boiling point possibly? Van? Anyone?). The park was mostly stairs (shock) and patios where each spring bubbled up, usually into cement pools. A small river ran along as well, with a geyser next to it. It was all pretty crazy, especially the parts where you could see the water bubbling up in little puddles in the dirt at your feet. The ground was very warm, and we had been walking all day after not getting much sleep the night before. So we were ready for dinner and bed, but then one of the hotel receptionists came along with a surprise activity. He took us to a kind of lodge-style restaurant in the same square as our hotel. There was a raised stage in the middle of a big open room and the audience sat at long tables around the stage, most still picking at food on their tables. One of the local minority groups was putting on a concert. The performers wore traditional dress and did dances and sang popular Chinese songs. Even I recognized most of the songs. It was a pretty bizarre experience, actually, not really culturally informative or enlightening in the way one might expect when hearing of a concert put on by a minority group to celebrate their culture. It was more like a camp talent show, but everyone was wearing traditional costume. At one point, the announcer brought up a member of the audience and had two of the female performers sit on his lap and feed him bowls of liquor. I think that was the most awkward part, actually. We returned to the hostel and had a very good night’s sleep.

This morning we woke up and one of the hotel workers helped us find a bus to take us about 40 minutes north of Tengchong to see the volcanoes! Actually, the have been dormant for years. They are monitored, though, and could become active again some day. They don’t seem to be doing anything anytime soon, though. There were three volcanoes in a row at the park we went to, and they are kind of more impressive from afar. They look like sudden hills with flat tops. At the summit, there is a crater, as though someone inverted a regular hilltop. Now, they are completely covered with trees (except for the ever-present stairs), and you would barely be able to know they were volcanoes if it were not for the sunken tops and occasional patch of volcanic rock, most of which seems to have been dug up, though, to make the stone paths and 50,000 of the same carved trinket sold to tourists. We were probable they only non-Chinese people there, but everyone was there on vacation, from somewhere else. Our picture was taken by some of the tourists at several points along our ascent. They did not seem to care that we were pouring sweat and getting burned under the bright sun. Although the park was not tremendously exciting, it was still pretty cool knowing I was on a volcano. These are big things for a city-girl.

On the bus from Tengchong to Liuku. Award for best cell phone ring tone goes to the man in the fake New York Knicks jersey and camo pants with the ringtone of “I’m a Barbie Girl” (which of course starts from the very beginning of the song). As we go north, the yellow grain fields stop, giving way to more green, and we pass banana orchards every once in a while. Winding our way, mostly alongside the rivers, we make frequent stops to pick up and drop off passengers. We com across water buffalo cows every once in a while and have to slow down as they herd themselves over to one side of the road. Several herds of goats are walking down the street as well. At one point, we stopped for almost an hour in a long line of cars because the road was out. The valley is a lush green, and I found myself pressed to the window to watch the mountains pass by along the river. We are stopped at three police checkpoints. They’re always interested in our foreign passports and laugh at the student ID’s we have found are easier to immediately give alongside our passports, knowing they’ll grill us about why we are in the country. They are also interested in the contents our the large bags our fellow passengers are carrying, which mostly contain fruit, nuts and other commodities. The police seem more interested in scaring people than actually checking their belongings, though.
Liuku is an incredibly ugly cement town set in a one of the most beautiful valleys, right on, and practically over, the river. There is nothing to see in this town, though. People come here passing through to go somewhere else – it’s a tourist town with no attractions.
Walking along the street, it is clear that people in this city are still excited by foreigners. Everywhere, people are yelling hello at us. Our best interaction, I will warn you, contains an expletive, that I feel is better to leave in the retelling for the sake of accuracy. As we are walking down the street, a man yells to us,
“Hello!” we do not respond. He goes one with,
“How are you!” Followed by,
“Welcome!” Then, exhausting his English vocabulary, apparently,
“Fuck you!” all very cheerfully…

Three hour bus ride from Liuku to Fugong in the morning. We were stopped once to have our temperatures taken alongside the Nujiang and surrounded by mountains. It was raining at first. The only thing I can compare this road to is Highway 1, but with the river instead of the Pacific Ocean, and the mountains right across. We’ve come across very small towns, some just even a few old houses, some slightly bigger, but all pretty ugly architecture – the worst are the clusters of cinder block apartment buildings set right in the mountains overlooking the river. Very strange. Fugong is pretty uninteresting. We ate lunch (fried rice, cabbage, potatoes, and were also given soup that had some kind of tea or mushroom that tasted smoky, lots of cilantro, and a chili pepper. It tasted like a medicinal tea at first and then afterwards my lips were tingling from the chili pepper.) One of the guys working had a tattoo that I at first thought was a swastika, and then remembered we are very near Tibet, if not in a Tibetan territory according to some lines of thought. Lots of people, men and women, have tattoos on their forearms – usually a character or two or a small design, but sometimes many designs or more complicated ones. After lunch, we desided to get on a bus and keep going north, to Gongshan. Along the roads, people in minority dress are walking around the small towns, or just down the highway. I don’t think they are getting their picture taken by tourists, seeing as they are in the middle of nowhere. It’s all very lush and green. We have passed a couple of churches – there is a relatively large Christian population in this area, alongside Buddhism and local religious practices. Every once in a while, rivers and waterfalls are coming down the mountain, flowing into the river. Power plants have been built on some. The terraced fields are everywhere, and some of the houses have corn drying under the eaves, or on racks. There is not as much corn as in Tengchong, though, where bright yellow corn hung up on the eaves and over the railings of almost every house or barn.
One thing I have noticed throughout our trip is that in most of the cars or busses I have ridden in have colored paper folded up into strips and taped to the front inside roof in crosses, parallel lines, or other designs. I still don’t know their significance, though.
On the bus from Fugong to Gongshan, it is more developed, with more 70’s style cement buildings in the towns. The street started to get narrower, though, and we started pausing more to squeeze by on-coming cars. We were stopped once at a police checkpoint, but no ID’s were checked. A layman just came on and took everyone’s temperatures.
We got to Gongshan shortly before dark and started to look around for a hotel but then immediately left for Bingzhongluo, an hour bus-ride north of Gongshan. The road was very windy. The man sitting next to me talked. He was Baixu, from the area. When I remarked that it was very beautiful, he responded that yes, it was, but the road is very dangerous. The he continued to scare me by saying we would not be able to find a room so late (it was already getting dark). He contacted his friend about rooms for us. However, when we got into town, we saw the hotel we had wanted to stay at right across from where we had been let off, and we got a room there pretty easily. We went to the restaurant across the street from the hotel and ate dinner with a guy from Hebei (near Beijing), who we had met on the bus from Gongshan. We were then befriended by some people from Kunming sitting next to us in the small restaurant. They started drinking with us, so of course the men got drunk, and we weren’t much better off, but they agreed to meet us at 8 the next morning to go to a small neighboring village.

At 8 am we went to the restaurant, but only our friend from the bus was to be found. We ate noddles and then one of our other new friends showed up and told us they drank too much the night before so wouldn’t go to the village, but gave us directions. We set out in a “bread-loaf car” which wound around the gorge and across a suspension bridge until it couldn’t take us any closer to the village on the road. We started walking on a narrow path that in most places was basically just a hole blasted through the rock in the side of the cliff. It was amazingly beautiful, and pretty dramatic landscape – mountains, cliffs, river, rapids, rocks, forest – it’s got it all.
We got to the village, crossed a small bridge over a stream (a pretty wide, rapid stream) that was powering a grain mill, inside of which a woman was grinding cornmeal. It seems to be just after the harvest time, so the drying corn is just starting to be ready to be ground. The people mostly just seemed to be sitting around, as well, drinking baijiu (liquor). We went into a couple houses and talked with people, and we went to a Lisuzu ceremony that we think was probably a funeral.

This village, Wuli, was the most interesting part of the trip. We were there with our new Chinese friend who was from the north. When we got to the town, he got us to all knock on someone’s door to see if we could come in and chat. The first house we went to, the people did not seem too receptive, but welcomed us inside. Their house was basically a log cabin type building up on stilts, like the other houses. It had two rooms, but we only saw one of them. It was pretty dark, there was one small window from which you could see the river down below, after the fields. Then, there was a hole in the ceiling through which smoke from the fire in the middle of the room could escape. The hole was protected from the elements by the roof above. From outside of the house, you could see corn drying in the open space between the roof and the ceiling.
There were about eight people sitting around the fire when we entered. Some of them came and went while we were sitting. They didn’t seem to be doing too much, just sitting around, while the mother of the house tended the fire, on top of which was a large pot filled with what we soon discovered was clear liquor, in which she was cleaning or sterilizing bowls and chopsticks, and boiling smaller pots of food. We went to two other houses as well, and most people seemed to just be sitting around, coming in to visit, and drinking. The harvest seemed to be over, and now people seemed to just be waiting to grind down the drying corn. I felt pretty awkward at first, sitting there in this house we had just invited ourselves into. It seems to be a common practice, though. The people in it gradually started warming to the questions our friend from northern China was asking him. They told us about the school, how not very many people were in it, and about how not many people went to school after middle school. Some houses had electricity, which was evident from the few satellite dishes sitting next to the animal pens under the houses. The electricity often did not work, though, but we couldn’t really figure out the reason they gave for this. Most houses did not have electricity anyway, though.
The man answering most of our questions told us that he was divorced, his wife had left him. Divorce is not something you hear about often in China, and most people don’t exactly look at it warmly. However, in some of the minority cultures, especially in Southern China, it is often more acceptable. This man’s wife had left to go to a city, where she was probably now married to another man, we gathered. She had left their two daughters behind, and now the man’s parents helped him to raise them. Another woman sitting in the house told us about how her daughter had moved to a city in the north to marry. We met another man later who had come from Lijiang, a town a little to the east in Yunnan. He had come to marry a woman who was from Wuli. However, she left him because she no longer wanted to live in Wuli, and was now probably also married to another man in a city somewhere. Their son now lived in Lijiang with the man’s parents. He did not want him growing up in this town, but he also did not want to leave it. He said that when he was older and had money, he might go back to Lijiang, but for now he would stay in Wuli. We were told that it was common for people to come to the town to bring women away to more developed areas to marry awaiting men.
The man from Lijiang took us to a house where he said we could see a Lisu ceremony. The night before, a man had fallen into the gorge. It was not clear whether he was a tourist or from the village, but the ceremony, the man told us, was because someone had died. We entered another dimly lit room, with a small fire in the middle. Some older people were sitting around, chatting a bit while listening to a younger man who knelt in one corner, chanting in front of a table with incense and some other items on it. A pig head was on the floor next to him. His chant was very emotional, and some of the people seemed very serious, but most seemed pretty cheerful, as they sat around chatting. Our northern friend quickly became very uncomfortable, and said that it was not right for us to be there and left. We stuck around a little while longer, to see the chanter give a man the pig head, telling him to bring it outside. He stopped chanting, and we decided we should leave, too. Outside, more people were gathering, mostly men. They sat around, all pretty cheerful, just chatting. Then a group of men brought out a pig which they held down and slaughtered. We left as they were starting to prepare its body to be cooked, bathing it and shaving off the hair. I was glad we left when we did, because as we were walking down the path to leave the village, we saw some men leading a cow up toward the ceremony, and although sacrificing a cow is usually a pretty big deal, I have a feeling this one was next.

When we got back to Bingzhongluo, it was already late afternoon, so we got lunch at our restaurant and then walked south down the road, in the drizzling rain, to see the bend in the river. This bend is very famous, you see pictures of it all over the valley and the rest of Yunnan.

Woke up early, ate noodles at the restaurant and then caught a bus to Fugong. It was cloudy, but the ride was still beautiful. At noon, we arrived in Fugong and walked around for a bit, taking in the boring buildings. The rest of the way to Liuku was uneventful, not even any police checks. In Liuku, we played pool on the street. The best point was when one of us scratched and an on-looking woman laughed loudly. As we got on the bus, they checked our temperatures along with our tickets. Just as we got outside of the city, the police checked our ID’s. Then we just sat back in our tiny bunks for the rest of the night on the long ride back to Kunming, until we arrived early the next morning.

permalink written by  agentsarainkunming on October 18, 2009 from Tengchong, China
from the travel blog: CHINA
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life in Kunming...

Kunming, China

I’m starting to get into a routine with going to class, studying, knowing where to get decent food, hanging out with my roommates and getting to know our classmates. Classes are challenging but I think I’m getting used to my teachers and learning how to prepare better so I understand what is going on in class. There is a side street a block from my apartment where my roommates and I usually go for meals or to pick up noodles or dumplings. The people at our regular stops are getting to know us, and it’s fun to chat with them. The foreign students at school are from all over the world, which is pretty cool. I have only met two other people from the U.S. so far. Among the Europeans/Americans, English is the common language of choice. With most of the Korean and Southeast Asian students, we mostly speak Chinese.

As for this week’s news, Tuesday was “No Car Day,” which seems to have been participated in world-wide. As for Kunming’s response, the traffic was slightly less horrible than usual (Kunming is a “small” Chinese city of only 4 million or so). There seemed to be a much greater percentage of taxis on the road, and it was a little easier to cross the street on the way to school. However, if Tuesday was your first day in Kunming, you never would have noticed that something was abnormal in the traffic congestion. Most Chinese people I speak to (teachers, students, etc.), and have spoken to in the past, seem very conscientious and concerned about environmental issues. One of the most popular shopping centers around major cities in China is Carrefour, a French chain where one can buy groceries and house supplies, kind of like a K-Mart. How this has to do with environmental issues is that between the first time I was in China two years ago and last summer Carrefour stopped giving customers bags for their purchases. Customers can sometimes buy a small plastic bag for half of a Renminbi. Very few people do this. For perspective, this winter there was talk about New York City starting a tax on grocery bags. A few people I talked to about this were verging on panic at the thought of having to pay for plastic bags. In my apartment, as in many buildings, our water is heated by solar power. This means that when it’s been really cloudy, we tend to not have hot water. It also means that a pretty sizable percentage of energy is coming from solar power. From my perspective, this is a part of the reason why China gets touchy when the U.S. accuses it of having horrible environmental standards. Don’t get me wrong, the pollution in most cities is palpable. Beijing is in a perpetual smog far worse than L.A.’s, and most other large cities are not too much better. But in other ways, people seem to be more aware and conscientious than most Americans.

As for other things to look out for in the news, next week is the People’s Republic of China’s 60th birthday. It is all over the Chinese news stations – even pieces on development are bent to celebrate China’s 60 years. Yesterday, my roommates were watching Spanish language CCTV (the Chinese news station), which was broadcasting a piece on children’s toys and turned into a history of children and everything the nation has done for them throughout its lifetime. Stages with elaborate flower-sculptures are popping up around Kunming. A large parade will take place in Beijing, and according to the BBC people are being warned not to fly kites or messenger pigeons. It seems very similar to the running of the Olympic torch, as residents along the parade route have been told not to open or go near their windows or have guests over during the parade. In general, there is a lot of excitement.

Several days after the birthday is the Moon Festival, which has added to a celebratory atmosphere. The most notable thing about the holiday is that moon cakes are being sold all over the city – in Carrefour, in small shops, and in a market set up in the pedestrian crossway under one of the major overpasses. So, we have been sampling different flavors of moon cakes.

Today, I went on a walk through the park. I guess it was my way of noting Yom Kippur. It was nice to be among the trees and water, and away from cars and motorbikes for a bit. The park was filled with people, though. There was singing and dancing going on everywhere, mostly among older people. There were performances with live music and fan dancing, as well as individuals who had come with their microphones to sing. One man was playing slide guitar next to the lake. He in particular looked like a street performer, but no one was playing for money or anything. People sat around to watch and listen, sometimes knitting or just chatting. Dancing is a very popular form of exercise in this country, and in most parks you see people following a leader through simple moves of arm waving and simple footwork, accompanied by canned music. There were many crowds of dancers in the park today. Although it is a Monday afternoon, it seems that people are already starting to go on vacation, which might explain why it was so crowded. I’ll have to check back after the holidays to compare.

L’Shanah Tovah!

permalink written by  agentsarainkunming on September 28, 2009 from Kunming, China
from the travel blog: CHINA
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