Hello Uncle Foreigner

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

Apr 25, 2014

Snaps: Crosstown traffic

You gotta get where you’re going

This baby stops traffic

Traffic is notoriously terrible here in China, but locals of all ages take it in stride.

Apr 19, 2014

Return to Longan Forest

A walk in the (now finished) park

The longan forest park is very big and beautiful
A pavillion with a tea houseWedding photos
In China, wedding photos are a big, multi-day production and you can get them done anytime, any place, in many different costumes. The big white dress is not traditional here, but more and more popular as China looks to the west for style tips.

Early April in Luzhou is that sweet spot between the cold, rainy winter and the relentlessly sweltering summer — I guess you call that spring — so during that time, it’s priority for us to get out into that sweet, sweet sunshine as much as we can. This year’s Qingming Festival gave us a three-day weekend at the beginning of the month, and Peter and I (and hundreds of Luzhou families) took advantage of our holiday Monday to visit the Longan Forest Scenic Area, which is just a short walk from our countryside campus.

Our first visit to the park was more than a year ago, when it was still under construction. It’s finished now, and really pretty — all manicured greenery and delightful garden paths. It’s big, too. We spent hours walking the hilly grounds from end to end, and it was a 30 kuai cab ride back to our neighborhood afterwards. (Generally, a taxi from the city center out to the new school is half that.)

When the walking started to become more tiring than fun, we stopped at a tea house for a flowery cuppa. Now a stationary target, we attracted bunches of children who wanted to show off their English and parents who wanted to show their kids foreigners. It’s all part of the job.

Water everywhereA man-made waterfall

Apr 15, 2014

The international dinner

Let’s get together, and eat some beef

An international crowd at beef hot pot
An international crowd at beef hot pot
The international roundtable. Top, clockwise from Emily: Maybell, Claude, Andrea, Alex US, Alex UK. Bottom, continuing clockwise from Alex UK: Echo, Crela.

The occasion: We knew some cool people and we met some other cool people, and we thought they should meet, so Peter and I put together a small dinner party a few weeks ago.

It was a truly multi-cultural ‘do. The Chinese side of the guest list was composed of Echo and Crela, and Maybell and Claude. For the Westerners: There was Andrea, an Italian businessman who has lived in Luzhou for nearly a decade. He got in touch with us through Flickr when he recognized the city in our photos. And there were Andrea’s friends, Alex from the U.K. and Alex from the U.S. (“A Double Alex!” Claude exclaimed when we ran down the roster.) The two of them are ESL teachers at a school just south of Luzhou city.

It made for a nice mix: a crew of teachers, current/former Chinese students and a long-time expat Luzhou-ite. Shop talk, tips and advice passed in all directions. We also covered general language and cultural differences — translating jokes for one another that didn’t always make it into the other language. The food got eaten and the beer got drunk and people seemed to have a good time. Hosting success!

“You promised an international party, and it really was an international party,” Crela told us afterwards.

Mar 30, 2014

Snaps: Please, won’t you let me hold your baby?

Oh, I hope he doesn’t pee

I'm finally holding a baby!

Ever since we’ve arrived, I’ve been singing a little song to Peter that goes, “Please, won’t you let me hold your baby?” Because the babies are everywhere and oh-so-cute. Until recently, this request has gone unfulfilled, because who wants to let some strange woman hold a baby.

Then, last week, it happened! Some mother gave her child to me to hold!

A relevant fact: Instead of diapers, a lot of kids wear split crotch pants and just widdle wherever when they feel the urge. So my first thought — after, “Yes! It’s finally happening!” — was, “I hope he doesn’t pee on me, like a gerbil.” Peter’s response, “You didn’t think of that before?”

Mar 29, 2014

The girl gang

Pinkay and friends down Qian Dian Alley

I run wild with the girl gang by Changjiang River

Down Noodle Street — aka Qian Dian Jie — by the old school, there runs a pack of girls, daughters of the business owners there. Pinkay, 9, as the oldest and boldest, is the undisputed leader. Her parents run a restaurant; as do the parents of Shuper and Little Sister; and those of the Not-Twins, who are styled the same but are different ages. Lovely Rita, who probably doesn’t remember this is her English name, belongs to the shoe repair shop. And Ling Ling, the youngest, comes from a small hotel down the way. Sometimes she bounces around on all fours like a puppy, and it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.

We know them because we eat down that street at least twice a week. They’ll hover over our table as we dine, peppering us with questions, and then walk with us as we pick up some nighttime shopping and head home. Pinkay is the best conversation partner I’ve ever had, chiefly because she doesn’t believe that I can’t speak Chinese. She’s willing to repeat herself endlessly, and accepts all kinds of faces as legitimate responses. Our chats, naturally, hew closely to my recent language lessons. (Thanks, Hello Mylo!) Can you swim? Aren’t these flowers pretty? I can’t play badminton. Can you dance?

At a recent dinner, we had an especially sensical convo. We talked about families and our animal signs. I’m a goat. This is when I asked if they could dance. They said yes so I asked them to do it, and THEY DID! From now on, I’m asking everyone to dance.

They pop up now and again, in different configurations, and basically have an unsupervised run of the neighborhood. They’ve got beef with the dog at the hardware store, but other than that, they’re tolerated and sometimes welcomed everywhere.

Peter and I have started checking out their parents’ restaurants, this week hitting the BBQ place owned by the parents of Shuper and Little Sister. “The girls won’t be around until Saturday,” mom informed us. But we were there to eat. Pinkay, Rita, Ling Ling and a new girl showed up as we were finishing. We talked fruit names, they gave Peter a Chinese name — 圆绿帅, or Handsome Green Yuan — and then they walked us home.

Me and the girls at chuan chuan
From left to right: Shuper, Rita, Pinkay, Ling Ling and Emily

Mar 29, 2014

Down time in Luzhou

Walking and eating

The new old buildings by Changjiang River
Hanging out on the parapetI chat with Listening and CrelaOthers frolic on the "old" templeI'm an angel
We spent some time goofing around in a small photography studio which provided costumes and backdrops for your shutterbugging enjoyment. Crela and Listening accompany me as I get my wings.

In the interim between vacation’s end and school’s start we received just enough invitations out to keep us from going stir crazy (though not too many that they cut into our glorious just-us time). Listening was home from university, so we got together with him and Crela and Echo for a lazy lunch date one January afternoon.

Our local friends introduced us to pig cake (zhuerbao), a Luzhou specialty dumpling with a glutinous rice shell and a savory pork filling. They are rich and delicious, and a steady supply came streaming out of the kitchen in bamboo steamers stacked higher than a man’s head. The kids talked about their various plans to get to America. We advised that waiting tables would be a better situation than washing dishes, but all three of them seemed eager for any opportunity.

After lunch, we walked down by the newly facelifted riverfront. Down toward the city center, there’s now a giant, “ancient” city gate and temple. “The [local] government has too much money and nothing else to build,” Listening told us when we asked about the “why”. The doors to the temple are locked, and there’s nothing inside. He pocketed his camera, not desiring photos of a tourist trap. We’ll take pictures of anything, though.

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