Hello Uncle Foreigner

travel

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

Feb 1, 2014

Two weeks on the island in Sanya, Hainan

It’s cold! Go south!

Map: Where is Sanya?
The beach at Dadonghai Bay
Let’s go swimming in January!
Peter's all wrapped up for cocktails at the Mandarin OrientalOur room at the Blue Sky Hostel
Left: Peter, bundled up for cocktails at the Mandarin Oriental; right: Our room, with its glorious yoga nook
More beach

Our winter break started January 3, and we celebrated by heading to the beach resort of Sanya on the island province of Hainan. Known locally as “China’s Hawaii” Hainan is just southwest of Hong Kong, and neighbors with Vietnam. The January weather was pleasantly warm during the day — people, not us, went swimming at the beach — but cool enough at night that, say, the outdoor bar at the Mandarin Oriental was serving up blankets with its Winter Warmers cocktail menu.

We stayed in the area known as Dadonghai Bay, which is super touristy and caters pretty heavily to a Russian crowd. In fact, it took me a few exchanges with touts and salespeople to realize that it’s not that they speak a dialect of Chinese that I’m not familiar with, but that they were talking to us in Russian. “我们是美国人。 说汉语,” was an absurd thing I found myself saying. “We are Americans. Speak Chinese.”

Our hostel was the Blue Sky International, and our room offered a fantastic view of the beach, which was about a five minute walk away. The room also had a lovely yoga alcove by the windows; down-dog and sea breezes. And we were just around the corner from Corner’s Deli, the best western grocery store we’ve found in all of China. They had an actual deli counter with imported turkey from the U.S. Peter started eating meat just in time.

Within two days of arrival, we were researching job opportunities in this island paradise. Within four, we were toasting the sunshine but reaffirming our original Yunnan plans. Kunming, there’s no one else but you in our hearts — although if winter there continues to be as cold as we hear, we know a great place to escape to.

I have a g&t at the beach bar

Nov 10, 2013

Exit interview: Suzanne and Jim (aka, Mom and Dad)

Seeing China through fresh eyes

Our flight's on the runway.
Heeere's mom

“The experience was so foreign, I don’t know if it was anything we could have prepared for,” said my dad, Jim.

In August, my parents made the epic voyage across the Pacific Ocean to the Asian continent, placing themselves in my care as their guide for a three week tour through China. After a restful stop in Malaysia, we worked our way from from Kunming — in the far western province of Yunnan — to the east coast megacity of Shanghai.

I hadn’t seen my parents in almost two years at that point — in fact, I hadn’t seen anyone from my old life in almost two years — so I was very excited that they were coming to see us. What’s more, Peter and I were also excited to be able to show off our adopted home country to our first visitors. It’s a different life we lead, and we were eager share the first-hand experience of it with people that we love.

Late last month, I asked Suzanne (mom) and Jim to reflect on their trip. Over the course of our discussion, they spoke fondly and warmly of the people that they met along their way. There were the college students who accompanied them on their Dali bike ride (with whom they still correspond) to the guards at the Jiading museums who proudly pointed out notable parts of different exhibits — “They were so much more smiley than the guards at the Met,” said Suzanne. They made friends with local shopkeepers and exchanged hellos with apartment complex guards all over the country. Little old shop ladies refused their money and hotel clerks brought extra fruit by their room. “People clearly cared about us,” said Suzanne.

Heeere's dad

It made the language barrier a very non-problem, they both said. They knew they could get help if they needed it (and, actually, many young people in the bigger cities can speak at least a little English) and surrendering themselves to the kindness of strangers became “part of the adventure,” said Jim.

An adventure fueled by some amazing food, I must say. Each region of China is fiercely proud of its local cuisine, and from Yunnan to Shanghai we got a great sampling of the China’s great diversity. “[As you travel] the spices affected different parts of the mouth in different areas of the country,” Jim said he likes to tell people at home.

There was a clear winner, however, in our culinary wanderings: “Soup dumplings [a Shanghainese specialty] are the best thing in the world,” said Jim. Soup dumplings are steamed and filled with minced meat or seafood, and … soup! Bite the doughy skin, slurp up the soup and then pop the rest in your mouth. Garnish with ginger sauce for an extra kick. They’re a fantastically savory, salty treat that you’ll gobble right up as soon as they’re cool enough to not burn your lips off. Go find some now.

Dancing in KunmingTo the templeBreakfast at JiuchengBike riding outside DaliHere's a fancy stoneMom and Dad take a rest in Jiading

Over the course of our travels, Jim declared several different meals “the high point of the trip.” Beef hot pot, chuan chuan — Jim is now a member of the sticks club! —, Malaysian banana leaf … He even gamely went in for the frogs legs.

“The food wasn’t like the same country of food as American Chinese food,” said Suzanne. For her, the best meal was the Bai cuisine at Duan’s Kitchen in Dali. It helped that it was her birthday and the owner’s sister crafted a personalized menu just for us. Suzanne’s low light may have been the whole chicken head in her soup at lunch with the teachers in Luzhou. “Food in the parts of China, and Malaysia, we visited … are much less processed than at home,” Jim noted in his travel journal. (For the record, physics teacher Mr. Chen happily plucked the head from Suzanne’s bowl.)

China is all around a land of striking contrasts, where the very traditional exists right along side the ultra-modern. Suzanne saw it in Luzhou, where “just outside [the modern western-style stores] there were people with crates selling rabbits and chickens and ducks. People walked in from the village with yolks over their shoulders, and started selling things on the sidewalk.”

In Dali, on their bike ride, Jim and Suzanne went from the bustling center of an international tourist town to the middle of farm country where farmers worked their fields wearing straw hats and no shoes. And in Jiading, we all watched as a crew of retirement-age workers built a brick plaza by hand just outside the local entrance to the Shanghai metro. “This is a country that is on the move,” said Suzanne.

“When we were first planning the trip, it was just to see you and Peter,” said Jim. “But I had such a blast I would return even if you weren’t here.” I’m taking that as a testament to my travel planning skills (and I am available to lead future excursions — consider this your invitation). But it’s China that’s so impressive. And I am proud that I had the opportunity to share that with my mom and my dad.

Out in the countryside near Dali

Oct 8, 2013

Shanghai: Crusing through the most populous city in the world

Ready, set, go! … And then, go home

Looking at the Bund from the cruise
Me and my dadBusy Shanghai
The European-style architecture on the Bund

Shanghai was the last stop on our mad dash across China, but we mustered our remaining strength to make a go of the country’s (and the world’s) most populated city. The verdict in our family is split on whether Shanghai is Manhattan with a different skyline (says mom) or some sort of spectacular future city (says dad). (I did go pick up bagels on a Sunday morning at a brunchy spot with a line out the door, so there’s that.) But the international hustle and the bustle made an interesting contrast with the sleepier western China that Peter and I know and love so well.

Now, Shanghai is big, right? And we had limited time. But with an hour-long river cruise, we floated right past the Bund and the Pudong new town, checking off two major tourist sights. The Bund is the area of the city where all the European banks and trading houses set up shop in the early 20th century. These days it’s a stunning strip of preserved Euro-architecture that houses expensive restaurants and boutiques. Pudong is the riverfront area that if you’ve ever seen a photo of the Shanghai skyline, that’s what you’re looking at. It’s a collection of crazy new architecture that includes the Oriental Pearl Tower, named for it’s two globular bloops along its height; and the Shanghai World Financial Center, which looks like a bottle opener. Reportedly, you can buy a functioning Bottle Opener replica in the building’s gift shop.

We were also able to squeeze in a quick walk around the French Concession, an area of trendy shops and hipster people-watching; soup dumplings, a delicious Shanghainese specialty that you simply must try; and some hard-core bargain shopping. We braved 艾敏临时珍珠, a multistory market in the Jing’an District that houses hundreds of booths. The sales people are incredibly aggressive salesmen, and consider incidental eye contact an opening of negotiations: “Need any watches? 500 kuai … 400 kuai … hey! Don’t walk away!” My mom played the game well, however, picking up some souvenirs at, like, a tenth of the original price. (“Hmm … I don’t know,” was her big gambit.)

And then, just like that, three weeks was up and my parents had to go back to America. (Peter helped me stay cheery-not-teary, after their departure.) Peter and I were lucky enough, however, to have a couple more days. We relocated to a hostel downtown, and basically soaked up the neighborhood — the trip had us pretty beat by this point. Our temporary home, Le Tour Traveler’s Rest Youth Hostel, was in a laid-back, urban-chic residential area. We had Lanzhou noodles around the corner, bagels down the street (there it is!), felafel also down the street, and Burger King a short walk away for one late-night emergency fast food fix. It was chill for a day and a half, and then it was time for us, too, to return home. Our summer of traveling was finished, and it was time to prepare for the exciting school year ahead.

Oct 4, 2013

Jiading: Drinking tea with Mark

Another new friend living a good life

The tower in the center of JiadingMark in the tea house with mom and dad
Mark, left, shows us some of his tea house friend’s treasures.
On the stairsJiading is a city of canals.

Just outside of the city of Shanghai is a suburb named Jiading. I’m not sure that it will ever be a big tourist draw on it’s own, but it does have a quaint little ancient town, some nice parks, and a couple of really well-curated museums. It was the hometown of diplomat Wellington Koo, Important Communist Hu Juewen, and, most significantly to our family, Mark — the owner of a lovely apartment listed on Airbnb.

Mark hosted us to the full extent of the word, taking us to late-night noodles upon our after-midnight arrival and giving us a fantastic tour of the neighborhood in the light of day. He was always available for expedition advice or just a friendly chat. And, of course, restaurant suggestions. He pointed us toward a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant that had the first dumplings that Peter was able to eat in China. (“Delicious!” was the verdict.)

On our first morning, Mark guided us through the local temples and museums with commentary and context where signage was obscure or unhelpful. For example, a piece that was just captioned “poem” was actually written by Chairman Mao, Mark told us. And he could point out other cultural details we missed, like details in the clothing and housing that meant a family had a particular social station. Forget audio guides, all you need is a Mark.

“When you have success, usually you are Confucian. When you fail, usually you are Daoist,” Mark explained the changing and pragmatic Chinese relationship with spirituality. He himself seems to have his own affairs pretty well in order: After losing his government-sponsored job because of the birth of his second son — a big no-no under the One Child policy, but Mark and his wife didn’t want to raise an only lonely (a pretty common motivation for Chinese to break this particular law) — Mark contracts from home for an American company in the mornings, and devotes his afternoons to reading and writing novels. He also noodles with a traditional Chinese zither from time to time. And, when the opportunity presents, he shows around visitors from all over.

We took tea one afternoon at his friend’s tea house. The female servers all wore hip-classical linen uniforms that were designed by another friend of Mark and his wife. (They run with kind of a boho crowd, for China.) After tea, the owner showed us around his establishment, which had classrooms in the back for teaching tea ceremonies and calligraphy, and he gave us a tour of his art collection.

Our time in Jiading coincided with the Bo Xilai trial, a media spectacle on the order of OJ Simpson over here, and one that set records in China in terms of TV viewership and Sina Weibo (Chinese Twitter) activity. Even Peter and I watched a little; it was the only thing on, every channel. Mark, however, was not part of the spectating horde. He told my mother, you can find more human truth in novels than on the news.

It was hard to believe we were just on the edge of one of the biggest conurbations on the planet; the Shanghai sprawl is pretty massive. But our time with Mark was wonderfully peaceful.

Oct 2, 2013

Luzhou: Drinking beer at the mall

Hoops and Tsingtao on a hot summer night

Echo picks up our beer carafe.
Listening at workAt a beer festival, you've got to have snacks.This guy is a pretty famous Chinese basketball star.Mom takes a turn at the basketball game.I try out soccer.

At our friendship dinner, Listening mentioned that he had picked up a job as a videographer at the Tsingdao Beer Festival (the first of its kind in Luzhou), which just happened to be that weekend. He wrote down directions for me and we promised that we’d stop by.

The festival was set up outside the Southwestern Trading Center of China, the giant mall on the outskirts of the city, and it was huge! At the main entrance there was a stage set up with live music, and there were booths galore selling food and, of course, beer. We had to text Listening to get directions to his area.

He was manning a camera at the basketball exhibition, where there were various carnival games set up, as well as a small court and a bar (where he hooked us up with free drinks in exchange for posing for the camera as Americans enjoying Tsingtao). “All people [are] stars,” was the theme of the area. Shortly after we arrived, a very tall man trailed by a large entourage took his turn at the games. “Is he a Sichuan basketball player?” I asked Listening. “Absolutely,” he told me.

After the excitement died down, my mom and I tried our hands at the games. We were not as good, although my mom did alright at the “Get as many baskets as you can in a minute,” or whatever it was called.

Corina and Echo popped by, and we abandoned Listening to his work to go try out some of the special-flavored festival beers. There was the pineapple beer, which tasted like soda, and the stout, which tasted like amazingness. There were a lot of families at the festival, which was kind of surprising given, well, beer, but kind of not, given China. We did see a small fight break out, though: Someone was selling fake beer tickets, and the duped parties were not pleased to find that they had been duped.

The threat of rain meant that it was time to go home, before we became witness to/participants in a fight over taxis. (Kidding! Kind of!) We said goodbye to the girls with promises to talk soon

In the beer garden

Oct 2, 2013

Luzhou: Taking a lesson

An international education colloquy

We took tea with the teachers.
Mom and the art teacher's daughter work on a painting.The art teacher pours the tea.Afterwards, we went to lunch for a typical Luzhou chicken hot pot.

My boss Linda very nicely arranged for us to meet with both a physics and an art teacher from our school while we were in Luzhou. (My mother is a physics teacher and a painter.) We all gathered one morning for a lesson in traditional Chinese painting. Mr. Li, the art teacher, brought his daughter to translate — although as a shy a middle school student, she was a little timid about her role. Li was very hands on with his lesson; everyone got a chance with the brush, even Mr. Chen, the physics teacher.

After painting, we sat down for some tea. Li expertly handled the Chinese tea brewing rituals — a complex dance of leaves and hot water that is way more involved than you’d think — and the conversation turned to American and Chinese teaching styles. From what I can tell, it seems that China is about a generation behind what’s going on in America — although Linda did point out that reform is ongoing. For example, Chen’s science lab sounds a lot like my high school experience: the teacher teaches an equation/principle, performs an experiment to demonstrate, and then the students replicate it. Whereas in my mom’s classroom, it’s flipped around: the students take the lead in experimentation, and from their results they derive/prove the equation themselves. “Student-led learning,” I believe is the buzz-phrase.

To follow up our discussion, Linda brought us all out to a banquet lunch! Chicken soup hot pot, which is a very typical formal Luzhou meal. It’s actually almost like two meals: First you have the chicken — a whole chicken, beaks, claws and all — and then, top up that broth, because it’s time to throw some veggies in there and start all over again.

Throughout the meal, our hosts were very attentive, refilling our bowls and glasses as quickly as we could drain them. We all walk away quite stuffed. And, as always, with a Chinese banquet, the conversation was lively and boisterous. Even across two languages!

Giving a lesson in Chinese brushpainting.