Hello Uncle Foreigner

travel

Sep 8, 2014

Natural wonders in Jiuzhaigou

And some people who get to call this place home

The amazing ponds of Jiuzhaigou are fantastic colors
Our hotel room had a good view of the mountainsThe hotel
Our hotel in Jiuzhaigou had an amazing view of the mountains. (Oh, and heads up: That Sauwastika there is a Buddhist symbol and has nothing whatsoever to do with National Socialism.)
Out in Jiuzhaigou, the townThe wild riverBar street in the hostel area
Jiuzhaigou-the-town has its beautiful spots as well.
Peter gives a whiskey pouring lesson
Peter gives a whiskey lesson to the staff at Minibar Tavern.
Our rainy walk through the parkThe mountains in the park
Our day in the nature reserve was rainy, but beautiful.
The mirror pool
The lakes are so clear that they make perfect mirrors.
Our guide, LisaPeter and Emily in the landscape
Lisa, in the photo at left, took fantastic care of us.
More fantastic colors
Those are the real colors of this pool. It’s pretty amazing.
Us and the many touristsMany, many tourists
Did I mention that we were only two of about eleventy-billion other tourists that day?
Oh, those colors. And the water is so clear.
This pool is actually many hundreds of meters deep.
Lisa's sister dresses Emily in a traditional costumeEmily as a Tibetan
Lisa’s sister kitted me out in a traditional Tibetan costume.
The forest in the park is beautiful.More colorsThe Great Falls
The Great Falls … and the end of our journey.

Jiuzhaigou is about 2 and a half hours north of Songpan, a bus trip that wends on a 2-lane highway through peaceful mountain greenery. The ride itself is a remarkable journey with incredible views that will make you feel you’ve traveled to another world.

Jiuzhaigou proper, however, is a for-real deal tourist extravaganza. The nature reserve is at the center of about 5 kilometers of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops set up to handle many thousands of visitors per day. August is the high season, so the place was filled to capacity. It’s a small world, though: On our first night in town, we ran into our friend Meichen. Never was I so surprised to hear my name called out on an unfamiliar street. But that was nothing compared to the shock we gave all the onlookers watching a white woman and a Chinese young adult running at each other for hugs.

East of the park, the collection of homes-away-from-home is called Longkang Village. This is where we stayed, and it also contains the delightful Bianbian Jie, a cobblestoned river walk with a bunch of cute little restaurants. When we were there, many of the shops were closed down (some by apparent government order), making the walk a pretty peaceful place to escape the crush of humanity up on the main road.

To the west is Pengfeng Village, mostly similar to Long Kang. Pengfeng’s standout attraction is the small cluster of funky Lonely Planet-approved hostels. In this small cluster is also an area called Bar Street. This is the place in which we met Lisa, the encounter that changed our whole trip.

It was at the Minibar Tavern. Peter asked for a shot of whiskey, but the staff wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. Which resulted in every ex-pat drinkers’ dream situation: They asked him to show them how it’s done. They covered, in English, the vocabulary words “neat,” “with ice,” and “chaser”; and he showed them how to use their fingers to measure the proper amount.

Lisa was the young woman who had been doing most of the translating. This was her sister’s new bar, and later we would learn that this was Lisa’s first visit since the bar opened. Lisa and her brother, Peter (a double Peter!), were local kids, and they offered to show us around the park for free the next day, in gratitude for the bartending lesson. “I’ll give you the quality tour,” she promised us.

We would be fools not to take them up on this. So early the next morning, we met them outside of our hotel and they took us to the park. Lisa, actually, had been born there. Her family, she told us, was one of three large extended families that made up 荷叶, or the Lotus Leaf village, a small village inside the park. (There are a few Tibetan villages inside the park.) This made her and Peter extremely knowledgeable guides. (Though Peter seemed a little shy about his English.) They showed us all the best views, where to take the pictures, which walks were the most interesting, when it was advisable to take the bus between sights, and even where to sit on the bus for the best vantage point. The lakes of Jiuzhaigou are startlingly brilliant and even in person unreal looking. “I know. It looks Photoshopped,” Lisa said.

But she said so much more than that. In the midst of this natural wonder, Lisa answered my million nosy questions about her life and family, giving context and reality to our otherworldly surroundings, even as we crushed along surrounded by thousands of other tourists.

She’s the daughter of a Tibetan father and a Han Chinese mother, a match which made all the parents grumble at the time, but it’s been a long and happy marriage, “so no one can say anything now,” Lisa said. As a child, she and her brothers and sisters and other extended family members — whom, by custom, Lisa explained, are all referred to as brother and sister; for example, our aforementioned Peter is actually a younger cousin — were turned out to play in the park as their own 700 km2 playground. “There are no bad guys out there,” her mother reasoned. They swam and fished in the pools, rode horses through the forests, picked wild strawberries and mushrooms in the hills. It all sounds like the perfect countryside childhood. Her father was even part of the team that rounded up the wild pandas to bring them to the Wolong Panda Reserve.

Lisa said a few times during our trip that too many people come now. She’s understandably very protective of the land. As we walked, she pointed out stray litter as well as the little boat they use to go clear trash from the ponds. There are 2-3 cleaning people for every 1-2 kilometers, Lisa told us. And they do excellent work; the whole reserve was remarkably clean, given the fact that there were tourists everywhere munching on disposable cup noodle and rice dishes.

Lisa was on familiar terms with pretty much all of the park vendors and employees, throwing out friendly waves and stopping for a chat here and there. “That’s my uncle,” she said of a passing bus driver. After a quick hello with some young jewelery sellers, she told me, “We’re almost all relations.”

One sister, a much older woman, ran a stall with traditional Tibetan costumes. The idea was that you’d dress up and take a photo with some Jiuzhaigou-ness in the background. This sister never went to school; she worked in the park since she was very young. Because I was with Lisa, she let me try on a costume for free. It was a funny interaction. Lisa pointed out that I was a native English speaker, speaking Mandarin with a woman who spoke Tibetan. The sister told me I was pretty all dressed up, though. I understood that.

Lisa said that her father thought that education was very important for her and her siblings. His mother, a woman Lisa spoke very fondly of, worked really hard to send him to university, and he in turn wanted the same education for his children. So she went to middle and high school in Chengdu, and now studies accounting at university in Leshan. During her vacation time, to make a little money she and Peter used to sell watermelon and other snacks to tourists in the park. Now that they’re older, they give tours to people like us.

Though much of her family has found some employment in the park, not everyone stays. Once she finishes university, Lisa said that she was uncertain whether she would return. Another sister — who is actually Lisa’s niece but older than her — just married an English man. But they came back to the village to have a traditional week-long Tibetan wedding ceremony. It sounded wonderful, with lots of delicious foods: wonderful breads baked with fresh wild vegetables.

Jiuzhaigou is such a wonderfully strange sight to see. You have the fantastic natural formations: the outrageously colored lakes, the soaring mountains, and fertile forests. And then there’s just people, everywhere. All of them taking pictures, so much so that the outstretched arms and digital screens become part of the scenery.

After a photo scrum at the Giant Falls, we took a rest that turned into the end of the line for us. Sitting down, we realized that we were tired, wet, cold, and after almost 4 hours, fully sated with nature. Lisa kindly assured us that the two sights we were skipping — the Long Lake and the Five Color Pool — are similar to lakes we’ve already seen. It’s just a lake that’s long, she said of the former, and we’ve seen all five colors in other lakes. We said our goodbyes and she dropped us off at the bus to the exit. And she rushed off to go help her mom somewhere in the park.

Jiuzhaigou is a beautiful landscapeThe Falls, again

Sep 6, 2014

Wandering the Songpan countryside

前面一点点, or Go on ahead, just a little farther

High on the hills outside of Songpan
Some horses in the roadA small streamWhere are we going? Not here.
This is it, our driver told us, Shangniba Monastery. On the phone with a translating David, I said that this isn’t the it we were looking for.
Some kids in a small Tibetan village.More village
We passed through a small Tibetan village on our way out into the countryside.
On the roadSome prayer flagsOur little truckOur little truckWe keep going up
Just keep going up.
On the west mountainMore horses
On our second day of exploring, we drove up the mountain to the west of the city.
Houses on the west mountainMe on the West GateOur friends on the West Gate
The West Gate is isolated from the hubbub of the valley.

All of the travel services in Songpan are geared to get you out of it. Whether it’s on horse or by bike, on foot or by car, someone in town will help you plan and execute your foray into the wild. Our someone was David, the son of our hostel owner and the main barista/bartender at the Kitchen. He also had some great advice for us on local wines. He’s a knowledgeable man.

David found us a driver (because, of course, we went by car). A plucky little guy with a little silver pickup who laughed at all of our antics. For two days, he drove us everywhere we asked to go, even when we had no idea where we were going.

Our first afternoon, outside of Shangniba Monastery — a destination I plucked from the hand-drawn map on the wall of the Kitchen — he had to call David to explain that we were, in fact, there. It’s nice, I said, but it’s not what we had in mind. The sprawling Buddhist temple was in the middle of a serene valley, but we were hoping our trip would take us in a more upward direction. Later, Peter joked privately that, “We’re Americans. We just want to go to the top.”

So our driver drew two arrows on a piece of paper, one pointing forward and the other looping back. We chose forward — “前面一点点,” Peter said — and he took us on a joyride into the mountains. And it was fantastic. He drove until there was no road and we got out to look. Then he turned around and we reached a crossroads with a road that ascended even higher. “上可以吗?” I asked. Can we go up? Yes, we can.

Our journey that day took us through the valleys, up the twisty mountain roads, past farmland and through small villages. Periodically, small herds of yak and horses would crowd the road. Our driver would honk and we’d all laugh. Vibrantly colored Tibetan prayer flags stood out against the green of the mountains. It was idyllic. And the view from the top was just magnificent. Up high, the only sounds were the prayer flags that whipped in the wind, and a horse in a field that snorted at our arrival. Taking it all in we marveled: “It’s amazing that this is China … that this is the earth!”

The next day, we headed for the West Gate, an ancient fortification perched on the mountain that overlooks Songpan city. (That’s actually where I hoped we were going when I asked for the monastery.) Our driver took the back way straight to the top, where we decided that we’d take the walking trail back down.

But before our decent, it was snack time. Peter and I sat looking down on the city on the edge of the West Gate, and broke out our yak and barley bread picnic. We were quickly joined by a boisterous group of kids — and their adult — who had actually done the climb on their own two feet. They — four young boys and a somewhat reserved girl — were still full of energy. Between snacks, they howled like wolves at the city below, and aimed pretend guns through the gate’s crenelations. Like you do. They were also pretty amused by our presence, and tossed jello cups to us. (“Like we were monkeys,” Peter said.)

The way down is impeccably maintained. High up on the mountain is a wooden walkway, which turns into a stone pathway as the incline gets less steep lower down. There are regular rest areas along the way, placed to enjoy the prettiest views. On our way down, we only ran into a few other small groups, so the pathway belonged solely to us for most of our descent.

Near the bottom, humanity reasserts itself. One house becomes a few, becomes the outskirts of the city. A group of local woman claimed the lowest viewing platform for their afternoon hangout. We followed the path to the end and made our egress onto a busy city street. A few kids gave us high fives for our success. Or because they liked the looks of us. Who knows? We were all having fun.

Our travels in Songpan represent probably the least planning we’ve ever done for a trip. But it all worked out amazingly. By just picking a destination and figuring it out, we may look like fools some of the time, but we stumble into experiences we wouldn’t have even know to look for had we come burdened with any expectations. Sometimes the results are confusing, or even boring, but even that teaches us something. On the whole “just go on ahead, a little more” has been a rewarding way to live our lives.

A view of Songpan city from abovePeter eats lunch at the West Gate, the kids look on.West GateWe hike down the west mountain
We conquered Songpan!

Aug 30, 2014

Inside the city walls of Songpan

We don’t do things right, we do them fun

Songpan city is in a beautiful valley.
The center of old Songpan city is a hive of activity contrasting with peaceful landscape that surrounds it.
These are horses.
The horses hang out, waiting for riders.
A covered bridgeMainstreet of the old city
All types milled about the city’s main street.

Songpan is a horse town, and riding is what most people are there for. From easy-peasy day trips to two-week, hard-riding slogs into the mountains, the horses of Songpan are at your service. According to a book we found at Emma’s Kitchen — the restaurant associated with the hostel we stayed at — the area was established as a Destination by a British-Israeli businessman who a few decades ago started a horse trekking company catering to western adventurers. (Nyíri, Pál. Scenic Spots: Chinese Tourism, the State, and Cultural Authority. U of Washington Press. 2011.) These days, there are a few companies that will facilitate your horsey adventure, and both foreign and domestic travelers are drawn in. Horses share the road with giant tour buses as everyone flows in and out of the city.

But we don’t horse trek. Both Peter and I feel that horses are best admired with two feet firmly on the ground. Fortunately, Songpan city itself is a charmingly weird little nabe. It’s obviously a vacation town, but the local sector isn’t hidden away like it is in other places we’ve visited. The “real” and the “just-visiting” exist side-by-side throughout Songpan. And let me tell you, it doesn’t get more authentic than laborers gathering beneath your window at 6am getting ready for the workday.

There is an actual ancient town, bounded on three sides by a replica wall with original gates. The west side is bounded by a giant mountain that erupts skyward. Up there, the West Gate is reconstructed, but the wall is real. Let’s call the whole thing off!

Along the main drag are the inevitable tourist shops, hawking horse blankets, knives, wolfskins, traditional Tibetan handcrafts (including iPad and cell phone covers) and yak meat. If you don’t need any of that, there’s plenty of panda gear. Slip down the side streets, however, and there are residential neighborhoods. Young kids hang out on the streets, excited to practice their English with the foreigners. There’s a yak abbatoir just next to the meat market on Muslim Street, and neither are just for show.

You can tell the locals from the visitors by their gear. Tourist families sport their matching North Face-style jackets, and young ladies saunter around high heels, short skirts and newly purchased Tibetan blankets (you wanna look good, but it’s cold up there). The locals are the ones in the traditional Muslim kufi or Qiang embroidered dresses, etc. Everyone not in heels, however, wears comfortable name brand sneakers.

We spent our time in town hanging out, bouncing between Emma’s Kitchen and Amdo Coffee Inn. Early morning coffee, mid-morning snack, afternoon tea, pre-dinner drinks, late-night nightcap … they had us covered. We were basically like hobbits.

But, like Bilbo Baggins before us, we also itched to get out into the wider world …

Sitting at Amdo's The route up to the West GateIn the streets
Amdo Coffee, left, was a great place to sit and watch the world go by.
In the residential part of the citySome child's graffiti
Down Songpan’s sidestreets, real living — and real children’s graffiti — goes on.
The meat market
The meat market was just next to the very active slaughterhouse. We didn’t take pictures of the slaughterhouse.
A small bridge over the Min RiverHaving a nightcao at Amdo's
Left: A bridge over the Min River; Right: A nightcap at Amdo
To the mountains
Enough city talk, let’s get up into the mountains…

Aug 28, 2014

Yak Meat: The King in the North

The meals we loved

Dried yak meat hanging on the high street
There is yak meat everywhere, all over Songpan.
Our barley bread of the gods
Out in Tibetan country, we enjoyed the food of the gods.
At some crazy barbecue
Confusing BBQ in Songpan is very tasty.
Dinner at Emma's Kitchen
Emma’s Kitchen in Songpan is a hub for visiting backpackers who want some hearty fare.
Have a chicken
We didn’t eat the head, but the rest our riverside chicken was just fantastic.
Tibetan food at Abu Luzi
We had a Tibetan-style feast at Jiuzhagou’s Abu Luzi restaurant.

When we took off northward, we really weren’t sure what to expect. We knew there would be mountains and nature — but would there be ATMs? We had an inkling that the area was influenced by Tibetan culture, but what does that mean? And what’s there to eat around here?

To answer our last question first: yak. There would be yak, everywhere. Live yak grazing all over the countryside; We spotted our first herd directly outside the airport. And in town: yak jerky, cured yak, yak dumplings, as well as all organs from tongue to testicles.

It’s not bad. Yak is kind of gamey, with just a little bit of sweetness. The winner for us was the cured yak, which was nice and smokey and paired well with the crusty Tibetan barley bread that was all over the place in Songpan. (We ate two loaves of the stuff in a little more than a week.) It makes a good picnic out in the fresh air. Though it’s less exciting sitting in the hotel room.

Yak meat and barley products, we learned, are staples of the Tibetan diet. And that’s relevant because Songpan and Jiuzhaigou and environs, while part of Sichuan Province, also comprise the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, which is home to a large population of ethnic Tibetans. You can see this in the dress of the local people, the architecture, the strong Buddhist presence, and of course the food. But those TIbetans are not alone; the Qiang minority and the Muslim Hui people are also a strong presence, each contributing their own culture to the mix.

We tried to find some Muslim hot pot in Songpan, a rumored area specialty, but ended up at a confusing BBQ restaurant. In retrospect, at issue was some mild altitude sickness (Songpan is at almost 2,900 m above sea level), but they did give us a hot pot menu only to take it away when I tried to order from it. Instead, their thing was veggie and meat skewers that you cooked over a fire pit sunk into the table. Once we got the hang of it, it was delicious and fun. Although, I don’t think they were even Muslim at all, because they also served us beer. But I swear that sign out front said halal hot pot.

We had a different confusing-but-delicious BBQ experience in Jiuzhaigou. (Maybe that is the area specialty.) This time, we were looking for a Tibetan restaurant that had changed addresses since our 2011 guidebook had been published. We stopped to puzzle it out and inadvertently opened ourselves to the most persuasive waiter in the world. To be fair, he first tried to help us get directions, but when it became clear we weren’t committed to moving on, he implored us to stay and have a spit-roasted chicken. The spit was out front of his restaurant, and those chickens did look delicious. I couldn’t resist his command, and soon we found ourselves sitting riverside, eating a succulent, crispy skinned, with just the right amount of spice chicken. We gobbled it off the bone, and went back for seconds two days later.

But we did eventually make it to our Tibetan restaurant, and it was worth all the bumbling. Abu Luzi was kind of an upscale version of our yak and barley bread picnic from the beginning of our trip. The food was simple but extraordinary. We had the Grassland Harvest, a barley soup with fresh vegetables; barley potatoes, which had a nice onion-y kick; and the yak and carrot parcel, a flaky pastry filled with seasoned carrots and the most tender and savory yak meat. We came into this trip without a really clear idea of what Tibetan food would be, and it was a real pleasure to find out. If we had had more days (and more money), we would have returned here, too.

As for ATMs? There are Chinese banks everywhere. No problem for us. (Though if you need to access foreign currency, check with your local institution.)

Aug 27, 2014

A jaunt through Songpan and Jiuzhaigou

Getting out of the city

Fishies in a pond at Jiuzhaigou
Little fishies in a pool at Jiuzhaigou nature reserve
A Songpan side street
A side-street in the ancient city at Songpan

Our kids are constantly telling us that they prefer the countryside to the city, and now that Peter and I have gotten out and about a little, we’re starting to see their point. Yeah, you can sometimes find a taco or a rock band, but we’ve found that there’s a certain concrete sameyness to Chinese cities. Duh, says everyone else: “The city is for working,” a new friend told us, but this is home.

The “this” she was referring to was the Jiuzhaigou nature reserve, in mountainous northern Sichuan Province. It’s a spectacular park where they have these startlingly colorful lakes of deep blues and greens, nestled into a series of striking valleys. You may have seen pictures; Jiuzhaigou shows up all the time on internet travel lists and email forwards containing, like, “15 Places That’ll Blow Your Face Off,” or whatever. It really is incredible looking and people have been telling us to go there pretty much since we’ve arrived in China.

So this summer, finally, we decided to go north and check it out. (It didn’t hurt that the climate up there was a good 10° C cooler than the summertime furnace of south Sichuan.) We prefixed the trip with a few days in the neighboring area of Songpan, a sleepy little ancient town that serves as a base for horse trekking and other outdoorsy pursuits. This place is not so famous: It gets a small mention in all the western guidebooks, as a place that is near Jiuzhaigou, and almost none of our Chinese friends had heard of it. But there seemed to be enough around there that would occupy our time, and we were psyched for an adventure in the mountains.

On the mountain top in Songpan

Jul 4, 2014

Once more in Chengdu, the old and the new

It’s never the same river twice

Belly Dancing at the Sultan
I don’t know if every night at the Sultan is film-shoot exciting, but the food is always top notch.
The Pug's new location
The new Pug is hidden away in a huge shopping complex, but inside it’s delicious business as usual.
The abandoned side of the street on Xiao Tong Alley
Taggers have hit the abandoned buildings of Xiao Tong Alley pretty hard.
Live music in the German Bar
We weren’t expecting much from the parade of pop singers at the German Beer Bar, so we were really blown away by these two who were actually fantastic.

School’s out for the year, and we just got back from a little retreat to Chengdu for some international-style R&R. It was a trip conceived primarily with the goal of stuffing some tacos in our faces at the Lazy Pug; beyond that, we weren’t really aiming for anything other than revisiting our old favorites: Middle Eastern food at the Sultan, wine and book shopping at the Bookworm, maybe a performance at New Little Bar.

Checking in at the Loft — never stay anywhere else — the desk clerk recognized us from our last stay a year ago. As the sage voice of Uncle Foreigner, Peter and I like to pretend that we’re fade-into-the-background observers, but of course we stick out everywhere we go. That same day, Dana, owner of the Pug, clocked us as returners as well.

The Pug, by the way, has moved. South of the city, in a new mall, but the tacos are still fantastic. (I gorged to the point of physical discomfort.) So too has the Sultan relocated. Their new home, hidden down a quaint little alleyway, is fantastic with outdoor banquettes facing small private dining rooms all decorated in a fresh, beachy color scheme. The night we were there, a local television station was filming a piece about the place, and we were treated to a belly dancing performance with our meal.

Meanwhile, on Xiao Tong Alley — where the Loft lives — more and more of the south side of the street has been abandoned (a process we saw beginning almost 2 years ago). On the north side, however, there’s Joker Bar, a phenomenal new beer bar with a list of more than 100 brews — including a locally brewed IPA. Tasty. We made it our regular for the duration, and had some good chats with the owner’s girlfriend. Her English is great, and she keeps sharp watching “Breaking Bad.” She informed us that the government is moving everyone out of the south side of the alley so that they can tear it all down. My guess is that they’re running a metro line through there.

We did make it to Little Bar to catch Fat Shady, a local Chengdu rapper, and his posse. Peter and I laughed a little at the idea of Chinese rap, but they were really, really good. You could here shades of influence of everyone from Busta to Eminem — in a way that showed these kids knew their stuff, not that they were derivative. The crowd loved them, responding enthusiastically to English exhortations from the stage to “Put your hands up” and “Make some noise!” It was a lot of fun and we are definitely converts.

The big surprise of the trip had to be the German Beer Bar in the touristy fake “ancient town” of Kuanzhai Xiangzi. Our first visit was in January 2012, and we were the only customers in the bar. This time, however, the joint was jumping. They had a stream of live performers playing mostly harmless pop tunes that made for nice background noise. One woman, with a voice that ranged from Keren Ann delicate beauty to Melissa Ethridge strength and intensity, just killed it, however. She took that night from “fine” to “KA-POW.”

We try some Chengdu hot pot
We were a little underwhelmed by the Chengdu hot pot, but the place we chose was definitely a tourists-only affair. The atmosphere was pretty fun, anyway.

Jun 3, 2014

Cruising through the Bamboo Sea

By car, through the air and on foot

Nature is pretty cool

— Emily

Yeah, especially when it’s been harnessed by man.
Or as I like to say: Fixed.

— Peter

A sea of bamboo
Our room was simple and serviceableBamboo right outside our window
Our hotel was pretty basic, but beautifully situated.
Drinking the bamboo wine
There were many ways to enjoy your bamboo, including a locally made bamboo wine, in which we indulged our first night …
Our wildman driverOn the road
… making the swift and twisty ride through the mountains the next day extra exciting! Who doesn’t like battling the threat of vomit in a stranger’s car?
here is some meatOne of the Bamboo Sea's small villages
We stopped for a lunch of Yibin kindling noodles (they’re fiery!) in the small village of Wan Li.
The waterfallAt the top of the waterfallThe glory of the Dragon's Head FallsWalking down the fallsWe took a little boatNear the bottom of the fallsCow stone
The views from both the top and the bottom of the Dragon’s Head Falls are pretty awe inspiring. To get from one level to the other is a twisty, steep 20 minute hike, which includes a short boat ride across the falls.
The path to the cable carCable car number oneGetting a ride
Cable car number one is at the end of a long, beautiful walk through the bamboo, and involves a short ride across a deep gulch.
High above the gulchOur cable car was very crowdedLook at the valley!
On our return trip, two young kids clamored into our car to see the waiguoren, and then hid from us for the duration of the ride, choosing instead to scream in fake terror “救命了! 救命了!” (Save us! Save us!) as the gondola swung high in the air.

If all goes according to our Kunming plan, we’re about to embark on a pretty big series of changes to our China life. It’s exciting and scary, and a little bittersweet to think of leaving our first home in Luzhou. But, we’re ready to be ready to move on, and as part of that process, this spring we’ve been conducting an ongoing “Say Goodbye to Sichuan Province” tour.

Our most recent destination: Yibin’s Bamboo Sea. About an hour and a half away from anywhere (we took a bus to a bus to a bus to a cab to the park), this is true countryside that’s been bounded and sculpted to be impressive and inspiring, but also safe and comfortable. The Bamboo Sea is a self-contained resort: 11 kilometers of rolling mountains covered in massively tall stalks of bamboo, housing two small villages, clusters of hotels, and a small community of local farmers. Hiking trails crisscross the mountains leading to dazzling views of waterfalls, caves, and, of course, bamboo. The movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was filmed there, as many, many people will tell you. It’s gorgeous and serene and lovely.

But it’s also a strangely mediated experience of nature. Each short hike through the bamboo is isolated in its own lush Thoreau-ian enclave, which then spits out into a parking lot, from whence you drive the couple of kilometers to the next spot. All the tourists have the same map, and all of the local service people want to help ferry you through the same route. It’s kind of like a Disneyland for nature walkers. Which is totally our speed: Peter hasn’t been camping since he was a kid, and I’ve been informed that a weekend in a Girl Scout tentalo does not an outdoors-woman make.

The most efficient way to “do” the Bamboo Sea is to hire a driver to take you around to all the spots. Or, you know, have your own car — which many of the other tourists did. (This is where I’ll mention that by our observation, the Bamboo Sea is definitely a destination for China’s celebrated emerging middle class.) We got a guy our first afternoon and were scooted through a series of the best sights in a little red Hyundai Elantra. We had a bit of a battle of wills when we wanted him to stop in one of the villages so we could have some simple noodles for lunch. “Why didn’t you eat at the hotel?” he asked us. All the hotels served sumptuous feasts made of stir-fried bamboo specialties. We were obviously doing it wrong. But we got our noodles and they were delicious.

Day two, we were determined to get somewhere on our own two feet. Fortunately, according to our map, our hotel was a short walk (along a sidewalk-less road) from two recommended sightseeing points. One was a spectacular cable car ride that floated us slowly, in a gondola for two, over the striking gullies and peaks of the sea. The quiet hum of the cable machinery only punctuated the eerie silence of the up in the air. From time to time, returning passengers would call hello, but essentially we felt alone, hanging from the sky above acres and acres of susurrous bamboo.

At the other end of the ride, there was a crumbling pagoda which afforded some fantastic views of the mountain landscape, perfect for your nature photography needs. We also took some glamor shots with some other tourists who were excited to see some Americans on their vacation. Everyone’s dressed in their very best, Peter observed, because this rollicking, green wonderland is one giant photo op.

Upon returning to our side of the cable car line, our next destination was represented on the map as a short, looping walk to nowhere in particular. In reality, this represented an hour and a half hike through the bamboo that turned out to be our favorite part of the trip. A stone path meandered here and there, by small streams, sheer cliff faces and burbling waterfalls. There was technically no sight to see — no paddle boats, no temples or shrines — so the trail was mostly ours. The bamboo made hollow clacking sounds as it swayed in the wind, and Peter and I walked in near silence through the green, unsure of the final terminus, but continuing confidently on.

The magic ended in a small parking lot, of course, where we circled back to home on the asphalt road. And then, actually, someone offered us a lift back to our hotel along the way. We were back in time for bamboo dinner. And then a bamboo snack at the hotel next door. (There’s not a lot of nightlife in the bamboo sea.)

The day of our departure was actually the first official day of the May 1 holiday — being foreign teachers, our vacations are always slightly off from everyone else’s. On our way out of the park and into town, we bused past a miles-long inbound line of Audis, Volkswagons and Range Rovers; the woman running our hotel said that they were bracing themselves for the rush as we were leaving. We felt lucky to have experienced the relative calm of the few days prior. And after another bus, cab, bus and a cab, we were back home. We went out to celebrate — Labor Day, our trip, and just life — in the chaotic environs of our favorite Tai An restaurant. Ah, back to the noisy city life!

Cable car twoA pagodaHigh on the hills of the bamboo seaPeter and the PagodaThe pagoda areaEmily and the Pagoda
Cable car number two is definitely the more spectacular (and spooky) ride. At the summit, there is a small pagoda for picture taking.
An overlooked trailMore waterfall action
Here's a cliff
The bamboo trail
We had this trail almost all to ourselves, and it was easy to forget that the rest of China was out there.

Apr 27, 2014

A long weekend in Leshan and Emei Shan

The monks and monkeys tour

Emei Shan has some staggering views
Our charming room at the Teddy BearTeddy Bear exterior
Our room at the Teddy Bear Hotel was cute and comfortable.
Baoguo Village main street
From the Baoguo Village main street, you can catch a glimpse of the Emei Mountain’s foothills.
The foot of Emei Shan hiking trailThe foot of Emei Shan hiking trailThe foot of Emei Shan hiking trail
The story of the mountain is told at the entrance to the hiking path.
Mountains and cloudsMountains and clouds
The mountain peeks through the clouds.
An encounter with monkeys
An encounter with a monkey is something exciting! Or terrifying!
The cable car ride was shrouded in mist
Our cable car ride was completely clouded over. We couldn’t see or hear anything, and it was pretty eerie.
The elephant at the top of the mountainPeter, the hikerLooking down from the topI'm at the Golden Summit
Photographic proof: We made it to the Golden Summit.
Wolverine Peter, meat handsFinding enlightenment at the bar
Left: The table behind us laughed at Peter’s Meat-Hands Wolverine.
Right: We found our enlightenment in the courtyard at the 3077.
Leshan and the river
A view of Leshan city from the river.
On the boat out to Big BuddhaWe look at the fools who took the stairsBonus guard
Left and center: The boat vs. the stairs. Right: A bonus guard.
Big Buddha is bigThe caves in the cliff face

So, let’s get situated: Leshan Prefecture administers the cities of Leshan, home to the Giant Buddha, and Emei, adjacent to the mountain of the same name. All of this is about a three-hour bus ride from home, and must see sights of southwest Sichuan.

We set camp at the cozycute Teddy Bear Hotel in Baoguo Village, the actual closest settlement to Mt. Emei. The main street of Baoguo Village exists solely to funnel tourists up the mountain past its strip of hostels, hotels and restaurants. At capacity, and our weekend was nowhere near capacity, the area can service approximately a bajillion people. But they still manage to balance function and charm.

The mountain itself is a verdant wonder. And one of China’s Four Sacred Buddhist Peaks. At the base of the hiker’s path, the story of the mountain is plotted out in sculptures and plaques: the journeys of the Shakyamuni Buddha and his six-tusked elephant, and the scholar Bodhisattva Puxian to whom Shakyamuni lent said elephant. It’s very beautiful in the lamp light.

Climbing the mountain is a pilgrimage for some, whether natural or spiritual. Or spirito-natural, I guess. And the hike can be a serious, days-long adventure. On our first night there, Teddy Bear owner Andy asked after our plan. We’d see him in deep consultations over maps and supplies with many groups during the next few days. But our plan was simple. We were going to take the bus and then the cable car straight nearly to the top and get the whole thing done in an afternoon.

The cheater’s way did involve some trekking. We followed the masses up the winding, slippery stone paths to the top. (Our fellow bus passengers snickered at us for bringing the bamboo walking sticks that our hotel provided, but on the mountain many of them shelled out cash for not-free sticks.) The low-oxygen of the high altitude was noticeable, but the climbers included grandparents, babies, and women in high heels, so it wasn’t that challenging. But for those that just couldn’t, a sedan chair ride was 60 yuan per kilometer.

Groups of kiosks sprouted every few hundred meters, selling trinkets and supplies (if you didn’t bring a coat, you could rent one), but also fresh hot snacks; mountain plucked loose tea, dried mushrooms, roots and herbs; mounted butterflies; and all manner of panda merchandise. There are not pandas on Mt. Emei — they’re four hours away in Chengdu — but there are monkeys. And the signs that say watch your stuff are serious warnings. These Tibetan Macaques have no fear of people and quite like their food. We saw a monkey rip a bag out of a man’s hand and go to town on his vacuum-packed tofu and water bottles.

The Golden Summit, as it’s called, is home to a few temples and a statue of Bodhisattva Puxian. It also boasts a few kiosks and restaurants where you can buy souvenirs, sausage, and beer. Not strictly Buddhist. A few groups of tourists asked to take pictures with us; we weren’t the only foreigners on the mountain, but our numbers were few. We also got recognized by a former coworker, which was a sweet moment.

All told, the up and the down took about 8 hours. The experience was both completely touristy and genuinely majestic. The scenery was gorgeous and even the encounter with the monkeys was thrilling. We didn’t find solitude (‘cause we weren’t looking for it), but it was there if you were willing to work for it.

Nightlife in Baoguo Village is pretty subdued — probably because everyone there is getting up early to climb a mountain in the morning. Most everyone online recommends the poorly named Good Eats Street (the fools!), a place filled with cookie cutter copies of restaurants serving bland, expensive versions of the same Sichuan dishes we enjoy at home. We were better served, as it were, by the restaurants along the main street. We zeroed in on one in particular that offered a super delicious cured pork dish that we ordered three times over the course of our short stay. Our other haunt was the courtyard at the 3077 hostel which served drinks and barbecue late into the night. The main attraction there was something we started referring to as “night sausage,” made from the same cured pork we enjoyed so much.

Leshan city is a doable day trip from Baoguo Village, and it looks like a fun place to hang. We only had time, however, for Buddha. Again, there’s a hard and an easy way to do this. The hard way takes you down a sun-baked spiral staircase in single file for two hours with thousands of other tourists. (In China, there’s never just a few tourists.) Our choice: a 20-minute river cruise viewing of the statue. From the boat, you also got a bonus view of Buddha’s two guards carved into the cliff face.

This Buddha, at 71 meters, is the largest, seated stone Buddha in the world. It was carved from the years 713 to 803, and is a breathtaking feat of human engineering. As our boat idled in front of the statue, Buddha sat serenely, half in shade, moss growing epically slowly all over his body. He looks as if he’s always been there.

We’re not necessarily outdoorsy people, and we haven’t been converted away from city life, but we had a fantastic time. I also felt triumphant that I was able to get us so smoothly around an area, catering as it did primarily to domestic tourists, where very little English was spoken. In fact, I even helped a couple of other foreigners get where they were going.

I can’t get too cocky, though. On what was to be our last day, some misunderstanding lead us to look for an afternoon Luzhou bus that didn’t exist. We were trapped in town for another night and had to take an emergency personal day from work. But there are far worse places to be held over, I can tell you. Another round of night sausage, please!

All of Big Buddha

Mar 2, 2014

The Chongqing stopover

Oh, let’s just stay

Ciqikou, teeming with tourists
An acoustic performer at 16th Bystreet Music BarHere's Sheldon!
Need some “Big Bang Theory”-inspired art? You can find it in Ciqikou.
We eat hot pot in Ciqikou.
The return to Sichuan spice at our favorite Chongqing hot pot.

Chongqing has been our transfer point often enough that we’ve developed a cozy routine: Check in at the Perfect Time Hostel, snack and mingle with the tourists in Ciqikou Ancient Town, eat hot pot at the place, and take in a drink at the 16th Bystreet Music Bar. Maybe hit up Carrefour for some imported goodies. Then, catch the bus home to Luzhou.

Once we settled in this time, however, we just wanted to stay. The weather was nice, Ciqikou was humming with activity — we saw some shops go up literally overnight. And we didn’t have anywhere to be for at least a month.

Adding on some extra days meant we had some time to go exploring around the city; we went book shopping, Sichuan-food eating, and neighborhood wandering. “It feels like we’re back in China,” we said to each other as we meandered down a small alleyway filled with hair salons, mahjong parlors and kids playing outside. Sanya is on the mainland, too, but it felt like another world.

The main event was a Saturday night surprise, to us, concert at the Music Bar. The band drew a small crowd, made up of a small group of their friends, us and some other extras, but they were amazing! Their music mixed Chinese traditions and western rock influences — Dylan, Hendrix, Costello — in the best way. It had a dark and moody vibe that held together through it all, and the frontman had a simmering intensity that captivated the small audience. It may have been a mostly friends event, but they performed like they wanted to rock the world. I just wish I remembered their name.

Feb 22, 2014

A beach vacation for non-beach people

Do we join Fish Club?

Real China and resort China intermingle in Sanya
Sanya is pretty touristy, but occasionally you get glimpses of the “real” China.
Outdoors at the Mandarin OrientalPeter and his dinner at the Mandarin Oriental
Outdoor dining at the Mandarin Oriental is a fabulous experience.
I get a late-night pizza at Surf CircusPeter at the bar at Surf Circus
The pizza at Surf Circus isn’t the greatest, but it is late-night satisfying.
Me with Sissi, the server at the Dolphin
My new friend Sissi, from the Dolphin
Out on the boardwalk, trying some fishThe real beer kegsThe house band at Baile Bar
Baile Bar, on the boardwalk, rocked nightly.
In the rose tub at the hot springsFish nibblers at the hot springs
The pools at Nantian Hot Springs are relaxing and fragrant. The pool on the right is filled with those fish that nibble on your dead skin!

Greater Sanya, as seen from a cab, is certainly still a part of the China we know and love, but the beachy areas exist solely on Planet Resort. We were there between the slight lull between the January 1 New Year and the start of Chinese New Year on January 30, so things were a bit sleepy, which is just the way we like it.

Beforehand, we had decided that the theme for the trip was: “Try the seafood, you might like it.” That lasted for a few days before we decided that we didn’t like it, and didn’t need to work so hard on our vacation. The one exception being the tasting menu during our fancy-pants night out at the Mandarin Oriental, where Peter described feeling like Little Lord Fauntleroy dining seaside on rock crab, turbot, red snapper and crème brûlée

Instead, we just relaxed. There are virtually no turkey sandwiches in China outside of this little strip of paradise, so we gave in to our western cravings and oscillated between burgers at the Dolphin Sports Bar & Grill and pizzas at beachfront bar Sanya Surf Circus. Sometimes — many times — we hit both places in the same night. By the end of the trip, I was on hugging terms with Dolphin waitress Sissi, whom we saw was beloved by most everybody in the place.

We watched a crop of new police recruits goof their way through a boardwalk inspection. (I’d totally watch a sitcom about beach cops.) We traded English and Chinese vocabulary with masseuses. We ate junky and satisfying beach food. We got way overcharged on coconuts, but bargained sharply for a cheap pair of flip flops.

We met Teana, the MO bartender, who spent a lovely evening talking with us and fixing up extravagant cocktails. She’s Sichuanese, and right away we bonded over love of hot pot. Her English was so good that I thought for sure she had studied abroad. Nope, she picked it up solely through hotel work. “I was nervous the first time I spoke with a foreigner,” she told us. But she made herself do it, over and over, and now she’s quite fluent.

We visited the Nantian Hot Springs, and spent a day hopping in and out of scalding pools of various flavors, steeping like tea and absorbing the supposed health benefits. Emboldened by Teana’s spirit, I powered through some challenging chats that I might have brushed off with an embarrassed, “I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

Our 10 days lazed by gloriously, though it still felt like it was over in a snap. But that was OK. We were refreshed and restored by the sunshine in January. And ready to get back home.

More hot springsMore hot springsMore hot springsA regular swimming pool at the hot springs