Lanterns, dinosaurs and salt

One of the special things about Chinese New Year is the stunning lantern festivals. One of the most famous is in a town about an hour south of us – 自贡 (Zìgòng). We had heard of it as a famous dinosaur site, so decided to go the weekend after Chinese New Year to kill two birds with one stone.

With our new relaxed approach to travel in China, we did not purchase tickets ahead of time. I researched the right station from which to catch the bus and early Saturday morning we set off. We went by metro, then hopped on some shared bikes and cycled to the bus station – except we couldn’t find it. I brought up Dù, the Chinese equivalent of Google maps that I now use, checked, and we cycled back to where the pin was. Oh, it is a public bus stop with a similar name, not the large intercity bus station. Hazards of a novice Chinese reader!

A bit later we arrived at the hard-to-miss-if you-get-anywhere-near-it bus station, bought tickets and got on the bus. The driver agitatedly came down to tell us to put on our seat belts, given that we were obviously ignoring his clear instructions. I heard him ask if there was an English speaker, but to no avail. However miming worked fine, and we were off. A couple of hours later, we arrived at the 自贡 (Zìgòng) bus station. We picked up a Dìdì (Chinese equivalent of Uber) which has become our transport option of choice since they made an English version. It is so convenient. We can make it clear exactly where we want to go without having to say it accurately, and it is automatically paid through our mobile payment app 支付宝 (Alipay).

We checked in to our hotel and caught the bus to the dinosaur museum – a bit later than we planned, but not having a proper lunch caught up the time we lost detouring to public bus stations.

There were lots of families at the museum – interesting for adults and good for children. The museum is on one of the 40 sites in 自贡 (Zìgòng) where dinosaur fossils have been found. It seems that they have so many they can leave a space with untouched fossils to show visitors what it was like.  We learned about (and I have now forgotten) the location of dinosaur fossil discoveries across China and the world, and the reason the region has so many well-preserved fossils in many sites. We also went on the 360 degree virtual tour through ancient dinosaur worlds – scary with a bit of nausea thrown in – amazing given that we were all sitting in an auditorium looking at a screen and hardly moving.

We then went to the lantern festival. It was SO crowded. We are getting used to crowds but this took being crowded to a whole new level. (As an aside, we are becoming Chinese in that if we are the only people somewhere, we think we must be in the wrong place, and we decide routes based on the number of others doing the same thing). But it was stunning – I felt like I was gorging on visual brilliance. With the crowds, we had to walk slowly at everyone else’s pace, and take it all in. The photos do not do it justice.

Something we noticed all around 自贡 (Zìgòng) were leaves out drying wherever it was possible to put them. When we got back to work, Raymond asked his colleague, who is from 自贡 (Zìgòng), what these leaves were and why they were out drying. She said they are dried and then used for local ‘sauerkraut’. Interesting!

Sunday morning, we visited the Salt Museum. This was one of those experiences where the place you had not heard of turns out to be the highlight of the trip. I think Raymond read every single English word there. It is a beautiful old building (built in 1736) used by salt merchants during the hey day of salt production in the region.

It turns out there are three methods of salt extraction. Sea salt accounts for most of China’s salt production (70%), with well salt contributing 20%, and lake salt 10% (estimated at a paltry 1,000 salt lakes!). The first method has been being used for 5,000-6,000 years, but is not so useful for inland regions like 四川 (Sìchuān). A few thousand years ago the other two methods were developed. The 自贡 (Zìgòng) museum focuses on the evolution of well salt production – a fascinating story of technological innovation.

Part of the 自贡 (Zìgòng) geology that means dinosaur fossils last so well, is ‘abundant salt brines’, a legacy from a change of sea level. This seems strange for a part of the country so far inland, but it was 200 million years ago.

Much more recently, during the Warring States Period in China (just over 2,000 years ago), people started drilling wells to get brine, building on other well drilling techniques dating back 4,000 years. 李冰 (Lĭ Bīng), who built the Dūjiāngyàn irrigation project I have already written about, is credited as being the ‘father of well salt production’. He was obviously quite an innovator.

During the 宋代 (Sòng Dynasty) – 960-1279 AD, salt drilling gave the world percussion (cable) drilling, which is now used worldwide in oil drilling. In the 明代 (Míng Dynasty) – 1368-1644 AD, they developed ways to maintain and repair the wells, and fish out fallen objects. Many of the bamboo items on display in the museum were different versions of technologies to achieve these – evolving as each person was able to build on the ideas of those who had gone before them. The local geology means that natural gas, coal, oil and other minerals are often found near the salt deposits. During the 清代 (Qīng Dynasty) – 1644-1911, as technological advances enabled deeper wells, new innovators devised techniques to use the natural gas they found to concentrate and purify the brine. They also applied principles of hydrodynamics to transport the brine using interconnected pipes and pumps.

And, of course, salt was taxed, from as far back as the 唐代 (Táng Dynasty) 618-907 AD. Because the region was so rich in salt, the salt tax, which was much higher than the land tax, made this region quite wealthy.

Even though I am terrible at remembering the details, I am fascinated by the interplay between geology driving innovation and then this driving economics – especially here in China where it has happened over such a long period of time, and I haven’t learned about it in history at school, or while reading Eurocentric books.

 

 

Advertisements

Guìlín (桂林) and Yángshuò (阳朔)

In February, we celebrated our second Chinese New Year. Our first Spring Festival we went to Laos for the two week holiday, but noticed many special things in China before and after our holiday. We experienced many of these again – the red and gold decorations everywhere, the crowds leaving the  exhibition centre near us laden with treasures, Raymond’s work dinner with 红包(hóng bāo) aka red packets, various Lantern Festivals (we plan a visit next weekend), and firecrackers upon firecrackers. However, as when you travel a road for the second time, our second experience of these things was less dramatic and more familiar. ‘Oh, look they are putting up those red decorations everywhere.’ ‘That’s right, I remember it was really crowded at the Exhibition Centre last year.’

Another difference this year is that we ignored the dominant ex-pat thinking that says we need to travel out of China during the world’s largest human migration. Instead we headed to the last major tourist destination in China that we have not yet visited. (For kiwis, this is our last ‘Queenstown’ or ‘Rotorua’. Next we will start exploring the equivalent of the Wairarapa and Marlborough – some of them already in our holidays spreadsheet as we have started asking locals for suggestions.)

We had heard about 桂林 (Guìlín) before we arrived in China, from a German friend who said it was the highlight of his Chinese tour. Also, we knew that it was geologically similar to Halong Bay in Vietnam , but on land rather than sea, and we had loved visiting Halong Bay. And it is only a two hour flight from ‘home’. Raymond also wanted us to blob a bit during this holiday, so on the Wednesday we flew down to 桂林 (Guìlín = Cassia bark tree forest).

After picking up our bags at 桂林 (Guìlín) airport, we went outside to travel into town to our hotel. As at any airport in the world, we were accosted by taxi drivers wanting us to choose them. However, in China, we are now armed with Didi – the Chinese equivalent of Uber (they actually bought out Uber, so have a monopoly here). Its two advantages are that it is cheaper than a taxi, and the technology communincates better than my Chinglish. Didi brought out an English version in the last 12 months so we use it when public transport is not so convenient. In 成都 (Chéngdū), we can click on ‘Pin is accurate’, and the driver does not ring us up to clarify about where to pick us up. Unfortunately, it was less straight forward at the airport, because he couldn’t come to where we were waiting. Once we realised, we went in the direction the Didi software seemed to be directing us, until the blue dot jumped making it clear this was not the right way. He rang, I answered and spoke to him in Chinese. He seemed to understand me, but such understanding was not reciprocated. He tried to speak more slowly, I understood some but not enough to be really helpful. So, plan C, I grabbed a passer-by and asked him to help us. He chatted to our driver and then told us to wait there. Of course, while waiting I spotted the car with the right number plate parked a couple of hundred meters in front of where we had started. But we then had to wait until our driver went into the airport, came back out and saw us. Then we were away.

Each time, my language is a bit better and gets us a bit further. But it is still a long way from giving us anything like a normal experience.

Our first impressions of the city were that is a bit dilapidated. However, after settling into our hotel, we walked over the nearby bridge, along the walkway by the river as it was getting dark. It was beautiful – absolutely beautiful. 桂林 (Guìlín) is famous for the cormorant fishermen, and it turned out they were ‘fishing’ (waiting for tourist boats) right by our hotel.

This traditional form of fishing dates back to 960AD. It is not really a nice story and the birds, while looked stunning resting on each end of a bamboo pole, did not look happy constrained to only limited flapping movements tied to the rod or raft. The cormorants are trained to dive into the river to catch fish. After catching a fish the birds return to the boat where the fisherman removes the fish from the bird. The bird is prevented from swallowing the fish by a ring that is placed around the neck of the bird. The bird is rewarded for its work by its owner. In its day, it must have been a clever, albeit cruel, innovation. Many times in our week away, we saw the rafts and fishermen with cormorants on rods, but never saw one with a fish in its mouth.

The next day, we explored the city, starting with a local bus ride out to Reed Flute Cave. My Chinese was good enough to ask an elderly gentleman waiting at the bus stop which way the bus would go, and find out that we needed to wait on the other side of the road. The bus trip was straight forward and we followed the crowds to buy tickets, catch the monorail up the hill and go into the cave. A young man who was in the queue in front of me kindly asked in English if we understood what the woman had been saying. I had grasped some of it – no wifi, can (or maybe can’t) take photos, and would you like to buy these lovely postcards. He clarified that we were allowed to take photos.

The cave was lovely – because of the lighting and its size – similar to the one we visited in Halong Bay. Our young friend confirmed our suspicion that the bulk of the guide’s words were anthropomorphising the rocks around us, and, more importantly, that Raymond was not missing out on any geological information that he would have been sad to not hear. Our new friend was studying at a university in 深圳 (Shēnzhèn) in south-east China towards a degree awarded by a British university. That was why he had good English. We talked about why he had made that choice. He wants to study and live overseas to ‘be free’. When we talked about differences in approaches to study between his course and Chinese courses, he again used the term ‘freedom’. I asked if part of the plan was that his family would live overseas too – he pointed to his younger sister (about 12 years old) and said that it depended on what she chose.

After the cave, we caught the bus back to town and walked to Elephant Trunk Hill. As with the tourist infrastructure at Reed Flute Cave, it looked tired – like it had been a tourist attraction for a long time and not much maintenance had been done. But it was pleasant to look out over the city and then wander around the lake. We also found the place where our cruise boat left that evening, so that we wouldn’t be stressed looking for it later – which was just as well.

We went back to our hotel for a rest and came down to the lobby with plenty of time to get a taxi to where the cruise boat left, but there were none outside the hotel. The concierge rang the taxi company and said one would be there shortly. After a while, she came over and said – it is Chinese New Years Eve, all the drivers are home with their families. By this time, it was too late for us to walk. She pulled out her phone to order a Didi. I pulled out my phone to use our Didi and fortunately there was one car available – all you need. We got there with a bit of time to spare, but it was not the relaxed journey we had planned. It is the only time in 18 months that we have not felt there is spare capacity galore.

The cruise was beautiful – lights, water and Chinese traditional architecture. The photos speak for themselves.

Our third day we took a tour up to 龙脊 (Lóngjĭ = Dragon backbone) rice terraces. Reminiscent of the rice terraces in Sapa, Vietnam. Our tour included a show about hair washing traditions of the local ethnic tribe.

The next day we headed down the river on a cruise. This is where we saw the karst formations like Halong Bay, including the place shown on China’s 20 kuai note. The cruise was very pleasant – very crowded, but we now have ‘traveling in crowd strategies’ up our sleeves. After the Chinese monologue saying ‘nothing much’ according to the young girl with good English sitting next to us, we joined the throng on the outside deck. From here, we could see we were part of a convoy of boats heading down the river – in front of and behind us. However, we went back up onto the outside deck while everyone else was having lunch and enjoyed the tranquility. We also stayed up on deck after passing the ’20 kuai note’ and ‘horses on the cliff’ more famous places, after which most of our fellow travelers went back downstairs.

We had then booked to stay in 阳朔 (Yángshuò), rather than catch the bus back to 桂林 (Guìlín) like the others in our tour. Our guide said that it would be chaotic where the boats arrive and offered to organise a ride for us. I expressed concern at the proposed cost, not fully trusting her to be accurate about the chaos or the possibility of getting alternative transport. Eventually she said that she had arranged a ride at a reduced rate with some others also staying in 阳朔 (Yángshuò). We followed her through what could accurately be described as chaos. When she met our driver, they began a screaming match, ostensibly about our hotel being so far out of town that he could not possibly drive all the way for such a low fare. Then she turned to us and said we needed to give her more money – how could we say no? We will never know if this theatre was a genuine attempt to save us money, or friends working hard together for another NZD20.

So, we, along with four others, bundled into his small van. Maybe he was worth the extra money – for about ten minutes, he reversed, at speed, all the way along a narrow road with a sheer drop to the river we had just left, before getting to the part where he could turn and drive forwards. He dropped us at, well more accurately near, our hotel and drove away, leaving us looking around hoping we were at the right place – which we were – a beautiful place away from the main hustle and bustle, looking down on the river and town. Another enjoy traveling with the crowds strategy.

The next day, we took our hostess’ advice and walked down to the river, caught the ferry across, walked into town, and rented a couple of bikes to ride on the road where no cars are allowed. When we heard of such a road, we couldn’t help ourselves. We slipped onto a kiwi mindset and imagined a quiet space, even if we were sharing it with a reasonable number of people. When will we learn? ‘No cars’ means ‘not many cars’ and there were so many bicycles, scooters and buses. Raymond and I actually lost sight of each other at one point, and then took a while to reconnect because I went ahead, but he thought I was behind him.

We stood with the crowds watching abseiling, looked at the hole in the rock from afar, enjoyed various snacks from the ever present street food vendors, and then took a side road along by the river away from the main crowds. Because we had spent most of the previous day on the water, we didn’t go rafting but enjoyed sitting by the river watching others. A main reason that we can enjoy traveling with crowds is that we both prefer beauty over fame and most Chinese are the opposite.

We then walked to the centre of this small town. We stopped to watch a free impromptu bamboo stick dance. An older woman and her husband sat next to me watching. She asked her husband to take a photo of us together, and then he insisted that one of the dancers also pose with us. We then spent several hours relaxing at the outside tables of a Western restaurant, sipping drinks and people watching. On our way back to our accommodation, we stopped to buy a small twirly toy that Raymond thought would be good for physics teaching. The young girl manning the stall looked nervously at the older woman at the stall next to her and told us a price. Then an older woman swooped in and told us a price four times that, while glaring at the younger girl (her daughter?). I said firmly 太贵了 (tài guì le = too expensive) and walked away. At the next stall that had these toys, the woman quoted us the same price that the young girl had given us (NZD2). I just paid it, no negotiation, as a reward for not trying to rip us off. So she did well out of the whole drama. Raymond was very amused.

Our last day we traveled the other way to a smaller village – very pleasant and crowded, but to us the noteworthy experience was catching the local bus. We caught it from the side of the road near our accommodation, so the seats were already full when we got on. We perched up the front behind the driver, sharing that non-seat space with an older gentleman. As more and more people got on, we moved our feet to make room for their bags of vegetables, and enjoyed the banter and laughter of these older people traveling with us. They seemed relativley poor, with bodies and wrinkles indicating a tough life,  but happy.

That evening, we went to a light show held in a stunning natural amphitheatre – on the water with the karst hills around. To give an idea of how crowded this region is during Chinese New Year, that evening, they offered four shows instead of one – all fully booked. Reviews online have been mixed. We thought that the choreography using lights, the beauty of the environment, water, and large numbers of performers was stunning – sorry, hard to capture in photos.

But we are easily pleased. We continue to enjoy the beauty, hospitality, fascinating differences and challenges (with associated humour) of our adopted home.

 

 

 

You know China is changing you when …

A little while ago, I read a blog ’50 ways a foreigner becomes more Chinese’. I identified with nearly half of them (I didn’t do so well on the Chinese spouse, son fluent in Chinese, or ones to do with China’s drinking culture). I also had some more of my own to add.

First, those I identified with from his blog are (using italics to show the bits from his blog):

  1. While mystified the first time I was served a glass of hot water, I now like it, especially in winter. I can go a step further and share my work tea habit. I put half a packet of green tea in my cup and add hot water from the shared water stand throughout the day until, at the end of the day, it is almost hot water.
  2. I know the Chinese zodiac sign I was born under – (rat).
  3. Seldom worry about personal safety, even walking in big cities at night.
  4. Have a Chinese keyboard on my phone – now I use this to input place names into the Chinese maps app, to practice ‘spelling’ words on my flashcards, and to write messages in Chinese to my language partner.
  5. Grocery shop using my bicycle – the bike sharing apps that have taken China by storm since we arrived are brilliant for travelling the distance to our nearest big supermarket.
  6. Have to remember to tip when I am traveling abroad – well as a kiwi, I was like that anyway, but I love that we don’t have to tip here either.
  7. Wonder why public spaces there look so empty – this really resonated. On my recent trip to New Zealand, I couldn’t believe how empty Queen St in the centre of Auckland looked
  8. Smile automatically when I see a small child, and may ask a baby’s age or name – I have just started saying hello to children, more for their parents who tend to be so delighted their child can practice English with a native speaker, and it is just nice to connect.
  9. Consider vendor’s prices only a reference point for haggling – at the shops around our food market. But, we are not very good at it, mainly because we feel so wealthy in comparison. We have learned that if we pay full price, they feel obliged to give us a gift or a bit of a discount anyway.
  10. Use the China Union Pay card: I never leave home without it – this is only different because this is the dominant ATM system here, which I had never heard of before. More than that, we have become a couple who hardly ever use a card or cash. Our most common form of payment now is Alipay using our phones and QR codes.
  11. Love tearjerker Chinese history dramas on TV – I started watching my first one to help my language learning. I watch it when Raymond is away and am about 15 episodes in. I don’t understand much of the Chinese, but can pick up enough to become engrossed in the story. I cried when the heroine threw herself into the grave of the hero who died rather suddenly (it is alright, they dragged her back out). I think he was poisoned on the orders of the guy who always looks smugly evil and keeps a falcon in a cage – no idea why he wanted him dead. I love the costumes and the dramatization of ancient China – think Downton Abbey set in China. I recently found out that the kick ass heroine is based on a real person – even better.
  12. Calculate, automatically, yuan equivalents of dollar prices in my head – we now switch between both worlds, earning in yuan and using yuan daily for over a year, but still using NZD as the definitive reference for cheap or expensive, it helps that multiplying and dividing by five is so easy.
  13. Am amazed at how much stuff costs in Western countries – well food anyway. I am sometimes surprised by how cheap other stuff is, and sometimes surprised by how expensive things can be, like that beautiful NZD2,000 dress I tried on when hunting for a dress for Aaron and Sally’s wedding. There is the full range of stuff here, but food is very cheap, except when going to a western restaurant, which we seldom do.
  14. Make fun of western ‘Chinese food’ back home – and wonder what Chinese people make of it – they probably feel how I felt when I couldn’t even eat the burger at Lìjiāng airport.
  15. Keep transit card on me at all times – I am going to miss the public transport so much when I return to New Zealand.
  16. Check air pollution conditions several times a day –as a Bĕijīnger this guy has to do this all year round (although this seems to have changed recently) – in Chéngdū we only do this for the three winter months.
  17. Check Wechat throughout the day, make phone calls on Wechat – my lifeblood here, crucial for work and social connections, used ahead of email by locals. Most days I discipline myself to look at Facebook in the morning in case someone has said something important.
  18. Love candied crabapples – tart on the inside and sweet on the outside
  19. Have no problem with squat toilets, which actually are more natural – in fact, now I choose to use the squat toilet at work because it is a form of regular exercise, and I think being able to squat to rest in your old age would be amazing.
  20. Surprised and dismayed by how little the world knows about China – and how ignorant and wrong I used to be. Somehow I absorbed an image in the 1970s of it as backward, boring and miserable, supported by images of everyone wearing drab blue matching outfits. How wrong can one be!
  21. Stare briefly at anyone who doesn’t appear to be Chinese on buses, subways or aeroplanes – because we are usually the only westerners somewhere, and we can’t see ourselves, so looking at a westerner seems increasingly weird.

My additions are

  1. China is my reference point when travelingduring my recent trips to Vietnam and New Zealand, I observed myself comparing what I was seeing to Chengdu and China. I was fascinated by Vietnam’s link to China through the centuries, including seeing Chinese characters in its temples. As for Europe, it is obvious that there have been changing borders and various invasions and resisting those invasions. But, I was so unaware of it, with my view of Vietnamese history being limited to the Eurocentric French colonising and American meddling, only a tenth of the just under 1,000 years that China ruled Vietnam.
  1. See New Zealand with new eyeseven on my last trip to New Zealand, I viewed Auckland, Rotorua and Palmerston North through Chinese eyes – not so much Wellington because it is so familiar after living there for 30 years that my ‘I feel so at home’ process kicked in. I was surprised how unsophisticated I felt these places were. I was especially struck by Queen St, the centre of our biggest city, having hardly any high buildings, virtually no shops and looking so deserted. So many people were wearing black, and track pants and running shoes were more common than smart casual in the middle of town. I think I was particularly sensitive to this because I am advising potential students and many want to go to Auckland because they like big cities. I will have to work on managing their expectations. If anything, Wellington was more bustling in its city centre. Of course, New Zealand is also stunningly beautiful everywhere, and has clear blue skies, real wind and rain.
  1. Feel defensive on China’s behalfwhen our dear friends from New Zealand visited, I observed another thing about myself. I want people to like our new home and be interested in it – even if they are not as fascinated as we are. But, they weren’t. They were just here to visit us and understand our lives here, which is of course nice in its own way. And, when we were on the bus coming down from Éméi Shān traveling beside the longest traffic jam I have ever seen winding its way up the two lane highway, Lawrie quite reasonably suggested a wider road would be desirable. I found myself feeling quite defensive on China’s behalf. China is actually big enough to look after itself, and like New Zealand is imperfect. But, in the way that I love New Zealand and want people to see how amazing it is, I have similarly become emotionally attached to China as my second home.
  1. Fascinated by ChinaI continue to be an avid student of all things China. Most of my spare time is spent learning the language. I keenly observe everything around me and try to talk to others to find out more and more. It can be exhausting, but is also rewarding.

Warm tips for travelling in Chinese holidays

Among Raymond’s colleagues, the standard recommendation when talking about traveling during Chinese national holidays is to travel out of China because of the crowds. With the growing middle class in China, popular tourist spots definitely get crowded when a billion people are all on holiday at the same time. But, as for teachers worldwide, our holidays tend to fall when others are on holiday. And we want to explore as many as possible of the beautiful places in our adopted home.

So, we are learning to enjoy holidaying in the beautiful places that we most want to visit, while sharing them with thousands of others – not how kiwis are used to enjoying beauty.

So, what have we learned, and how did we apply this on our recent trip to 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) aka Avatar Mountains?

mmexport1508591114008

Expect crowds

A year ago, on our first trip to a national park, 九寨沟(Jiŭzhàigōu), I was momentarily overwhelmed by the number of people. I was fine fighting my way through the crowds at the turnstiles and to get on the bus to go up, but once we got there I couldn’t cope. This was not rational – if lots of people are getting on buses, they will all be there when we get off. But, I had to throw off decades of experience of national parks being places of tranquillity as well as of beauty.

So the first thing I did differently was to expect crowds.

Stay as near as possible to the scenic spot

One thing we did well this trip was to stay at a small guesthouse just inside the west entrance to the park. From here it was a five-minute walk to the bottom of the 杨家界(Yángjiājié) cable car, where a couple of walks began and we could catch the free bus to the east. This meant that each morning, we could start early before the crowds began to arrive in cars or on the buses. It was also nice at the end of the day to catch the cable car down and not have to navigate more crowds to get ‘home’.

We also enjoyed the relative tranquillity of staying in a small settlement of only a few houses. The disadvantage was that we only had that guesthouse as an option for meals, but it simplified things and the meals were pleasant and reasonable. You can see in the photo below the simple environment in which our host family catered for the 20ish guests.

Interestingly,  being limited to only true Chinese food for four days meant that our first visit to McDonalds after 15 months in China was at the top of a mountain in a stunning national park. We had walked for hours, it was drizzling and cool, and, as we walked past, we both thought that we would love a burger and chips aka comfort food.

Book tickets ahead of time

National holidays are not the time to be flexible and decide as you go what you will do and where you will stay. We booked our accommodation and transport well ahead of time, although this was not straight forward.

We wanted to catch the sleeper train there and back, but missed out on tickets both ways. A month before travel we could buy the tickets with our preferred app Ctrip, but sleeper train tickets were already sold out, as I found out too late when I was poised ready to buy tickets the second they became available. So we flew there (just over an hour), and caught two 6-7 hour day trains back with an overnight stay in 宜昌(Yíchāng). Catching the train was certainly an experience, and good for blogging – time and content. But we need to find out how to book sleeper trains before they become available! Or we might fly – not even double the price, and a tenth of the time.

We first used Ctrip to book our accommodation too, but then a friend found lower prices on another western accommodation booking site, so we cancelled and used that site for both our accommodation options. However, when I rang our place in the park to ask them to organise a taxi from the airport to their hostel, the woman commented that our prices were cheaper than their national holiday rate. I agreed to her higher price because it matched our earlier deal, seemed fair, and I didn’t want them to be upset before we arrived. Later that day, our second accommodation option cancelled because of ‘special circumstances’. I wonder if this could be loosely translated as ‘we could sell your room for a higher rate’. I suspect Ctrip with its China focus has a mechanism for increasing the prices during national holidays, so will use it for future bookings.

We could buy tickets to enter the park easily enough. Following the recommendation of our place in the park hostess, we booked tickets for a show on our third evening, which was just as well because the large theatre was packed. And, an earlier showing was leaving as we arrived – some things bring home how many people are in this country.

She also suggested booking tickets for 天门 (Tiānmén) Mountain for our fifth day. This is a popular tourist spot near our second accommodation in 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) town. We were not ready to make that decision on day one, never quite got around to deciding while we were with her, and then missed out on being able to go up in the 天门 (Tiānmén) Mountain cable car. We opted not to spend most of the day winding up into the mist and back down again on a bus, deciding instead to visit the canyon and glass bridge a couple of hours away. But those tickets were also sold out. So we caught the bus to the museum in 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) town, but couldn’t find it, even after asking some locals. As a last resort, we just relaxed, which means Raymond went for a run and read, and I had a snooze and revised Chinese.

Dithering and national holidays do not go together.

Accept the process

The good news is that the infrastructure here is designed for thousands. As in 九寨沟(Jiŭzhàigōu), we were so impressed by the wide paths that wind through the beauty and cope with the crowds, and the many free buses ferrying people between attractions. We are experts at waiting our turn to take photos that make it look like we are the only ones there.

We stick to the paths, follow the signs (or ask for advice), and wait patiently in line to get on and off the buses. Sometimes we asked the friendly guides controlling people getting onto the buses which one goes where we want to go by pointing at the map, or where the walking path we want to go on starts.  Sometimes we worked it out ourselves and got it right and other times we went solo and got it wrong. Twice other passengers helped us out. Three times I asked the bus drivers for help. Two were very helpful, said to sit immediately behind them, and then told us where to get off. The third told us to get off immediately.  I think he knew he wasn’t going where we wanted to go. However, when I tried to clarify to be sure, he did that thing one does with people you believe don’t properly understand you and increased his volume – a lot – loudly shouting 下车(xiàchē), ‘get off the bus!’ – so we did.

Interestingly, it is more similar to being in a New Zealand national park than you might expect. There, one also needs to stick to the paths, follow the signs, and sometimes ask for advice. The difference is that there are no buses, guides, crowds – or shops, including MacDonalds and KFC, and monkeys, and the paths are not made of stones. I imagine it must freak Chinese tourists out.

Enjoy the path less traveled

One of the highlights of our trip was the morning that we chose not to take the 杨家界(Yángjiājié) cable car, but walk up instead. Only one other group of four was on the path for the first two hours of this walk. It was beautiful, especially because it was below the ever-present mist so we could see the stunning scenery.

Down below, there were no famous tourist spots with eloquent names such as ‘Ape afraid to climb cliff’, ‘Cat fishing’, ‘One step to the heaven’, ‘Waterfall from the sky’, ‘Regretting meeting late’, ‘Golden tortoise in the mist’, ‘Pigsy looking in the mirror’, or, my favourite, ‘Splitting mountain to save mother’.

It was easier to make this decision when the weather was so misty that the views from the top were not so stunning. But it is part of our evolving strategy to avoid the Chinese crowds who seem to prefer the famous over the serene. We can enjoy the latter while fitting in some of the former as well.

Connect with people

Rather than seeing crowds of people as a nuisance, I am learning to see them as an opportunity to connect and better understand China.

At our accommodation, we chatted with half a dozen Irish students, and four Italian students. Having just read that China is now the country with the third highest number of international students, it was interesting to put faces to the statistic.

Despite our small guesthouse being full of westerners, we were usually the only foreigners in a place. So, we stood out, children tended to stare, and parents often encouraged their children to say hello/practice those English lessons they are paying a fortune for. On this trip we developed the habit of being the first to say ‘hello’ to any interested children, which led to several fun conversations with families. One family adopted us walking along Golden Whip Stream. I had a fascinating conversation with the mum about her family’s perception of China. She had good English and works for a company doing business with European countries.

She said they are very happy. The first reason she gave was that she believes China does not have the unrest that other countries have, poignant given that we were walking together just after the Las Vegas shooting. The second reason was that their government is good at getting things done. The latter comment resonates with me. The pace of change here, just since we arrived, is mind-blowing. Democracy certainly has inherent inefficiency. In New Zealand, elected representatives spend about one sixth of their time in government convincing voters that their policy is best in the hope that they will be re-elected. And it is difficult to implement long term change projects because governments are only sure of being in power for the next three years. Also, evidence-based policy is not necessarily the one that appeals to voters, and democracy can be overly influenced by selfish voting. And then, as we are seeing in New Zealand, a party with seven percent support can have a disproportionate level of influence. I have heard that the Chinese system allows grassroots influence through local party groups feeding into higher level groupings all the way to the top. I am sure this system is not perfect, but living here challenges my assumptions that democracy is best. As well as the greater efficiency my ‘mum’ mentioned, China seems to have a baseline view of each human life mattering, a view that seems to be increasingly at risk in western capitalist democracies. I still believe democracy has some advantages, but more clearly see its disadvantages too.

My new friend also said how her father only survived because his mother sent him and his older sister to live with her parents, but his six or seven (nobody knows now) other siblings died of starvation. Her dad tells them off if they complain and reminds them how bad it used to be.

Lining up to catch the cable car down to our accommodation, I used my relatively recently acquired skill of positioning my body so that people cannot push ahead of me in the queue. It took all my skill to keep one woman, who we nicknamed ‘pushy’, behind me. So, Raymond and I were both amused when we ended up sitting in the same small cable car with her and the other four of her family. I said ‘hello’ to her child and we started talking in Chinese, and found out they are from Chengdu. Suddenly, she was not ‘inconsiderate, pushy old woman’. She was ‘fellow grandmother and shared city dweller’. The power of connection.

People watching is fun too

We never get sick of people watching and it is more interesting with crowds. It is entertaining enough in one’s own country, but even more so in another culture. Some of the highlights from our 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) trip are

  • The shoes women wear. I know the paths are paved and there are buses everywhere, but some women were on the 1-3 hour paths wearing higher heels than I wore to Aaron’s and Sally’s wedding. We saw one woman obviously in discomfort with relatively normal shoes, and another with very high heels choosing to pay the men hovering with sedan chairs to take her down. The sedan chair didn’t look such a safe option to us – the chairs were old and rusty, and we saw a cast off with one of its bamboo poles broken – presumably while someone was being carried down a near vertical slope in it. If I was the sedan chair carriers, I would look at footwear to see who to target. I did feel that a number of people looked askance at my tramping shoes, seeming to think ‘I can’t believe she is happy to be seen in public wearing those’.
  • Propensity for guided tours. We are fascinated by the fact that Chinese, who speak the language and can read all the signs, like to travel with a tour guide. There were flag waving guides everywhere. By contrast, Raymond and I, and other foreigners, who are in a perpetual fog, travel alone – relying on advice in Chinglish and piecing together the puzzle from snippets that various westerners have written online. I talked to my English speaking new friend about this. She said ‘It is also our first time here. We do not know where to stay or what to see, so it is easier to have a guide organise it all for us’. We walked with their group for a while and she told me what the guide was saying. The main value add seemed to be having stories of what the shapes of the various rock formations could be anthropomorphised to be. We are happy with our system.
  • Three acceptable activities on a train trip – watching videos, eating and sleeping. Raymond and I stood out with our blogging and book reading – yes a physical book.
  • Standing seats. On our first train trip – slow train, hard seats, 45 kuai (NZD9) for five hours – our seats were in a row of three facing three others. We had numbers 26 and 27. While we were putting our suitcases up on the luggage rack, a young woman sat in number 27. I said ‘that is my seat’. She pointed to number 25 which was free and better because it was by the window and had a little table, so I sat there thinking we were swapping. Then she moved to sit by her friend and a young guy sat in 27. We will never know if he was the real 25 or had bought a ‘standing seat’ which is where you can stand or, if you are lucky, grab an empty seat. The two guys first sitting opposite us also seemed to be standing seat people, because one got evicted by a couple who got on later, and the other moved to 25 when it became free.
  • First class travellers. On our second train trip – fast train, 350 kuai (NZD70) for seven hours – we splashed out on first class tickets, so the only standing passengers I saw were at the end of the nearest second class carriage by our toilets. Our seats were in a row of two with a power point, foot rests, reclinable seats, hook for hanging coats, convenient deep pockets in the seat in front of us and little tables hidden in our armrest – luxury! The first class carriage seemed a popular choice for mothers or grandmothers sharing one seat with a child. They filled the gap created with no standing passengers, taking their little darlings for a stretch.

 

Live with imperfection

It was disappointing, because of the weather, to not see the park in all its glory. It was disappointing, because of the crowds, to not travel on the longest cable car in the world or see the stunning canyon. I would have preferred not to have the guy opposite me smacking his lips quite so loudly while he was chewing on whatever he was eating. Some of the toilets could be cleaner. But if that is all we have to complain about, things are not so bad. We are having such an adventure, and feel so privileged to be seeing and experiencing all that this amazing journey offers.

 

 

Things I learned in Vietnam

In July, we spent three weeks traveling in Vietnam with four of our special kiwi friends. It was an amazing, wonderful, fun, informative time. Traveling is always eye-opening, but I think Raymond’s and my learning antennae are sharper because of our permanent state of being different. Also, we six friends all enjoy reflecting on similarities and differences, and we had a lot of time to do this together. So, I came away with a number of lessons learned.

Enoughness

We went on a number of tours with local guides who all talked about how much is enough to live on – loosely translated as ‘you can feed and house your family and look after your parents’. I think New Zealanders tend to be more content than other western cultures, because most of us grow up with enough, we tend to prioritise lifestyle and family over things within our environment of having enough, and many amazing experiences are affordable for the majority. However, our group discussed how enoughness is not a conversation one has in New Zealand, even though we tend to have much more than the Vietnamese we saw around us. We thought it is probably a consequence of a history of not having enough, followed by relatively recent equal distribution of things under the communist government. Given recent moves by the communist government to have a system where individual effort brings rewards and there is equality but not sameness, it will be interesting to see if enoughness continues within this more free market environment.

Some things are worth fighting for

Visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh made me reflect on how I might have responded to the same situation. For 20 years, the locals resisted the US forces and their fellow countrymen fighting with them. Over this time, men and women lived in a claustrophobic network of underground tunnels. I could hardly handle being in there for 10 minutes.  They would have been in perpetual heightened awareness from continually being at risk of their lives. And they had to keep evolving new ways of resisting, attacking and surviving to keep their country. And it must have been discouraging seeing so much of the countryside you know and love destroyed by Agent Orange etc. For 20 years! I am not sure I would have been able to do it. But, it worked, it was worth it, and now both sides are rebuilding their country together.

Some things are worth forgiving

Given the relatively recent history of north fighting south, you might expect hints of lingering resentment.  But it was not apparent – when in the north or the south. Our guides were younger and would not have fought themselves, but relatives would still be alive who fought on either side. Maybe guides tend to toe the party line, or people who are resentful don’t become guides. It seemed that ethnicity was a stronger factor in peoples’ identities than which side you were on in the American War. Our guides tended to be Kinh, Vietnam’s dominant ethnicity, and genuine in seeming proud of Vietnam as one great country. We also visited Sapa in the far north where various other ethnicities live together. Our Hmong guide focused on explaining local culture, and didn’t communicate any resentment.

Winners eventually become losers

I have a smattering of European history and tend to be quite ignorant of Asian history, having been primarily exposed to European history through school and readily available books. But traveling helps embed things for me. For example, when we were in a museum in Vienna last Christmas, I truly understood for the first time why killing an Austrian ruler started World War 1. Being surrounded by evidence of the power of the Austro-Hungarian empire at that time, I finally got it.

Our guide to the My Son Sanctuary , out from Hoi An, showed us an infographic map of the area when this amazing building was built. The map changed to show how the situation changed when they were conquered (I did search for it to share here, but to no avail.).  I had one of those epiphany moments where I thought – of course, the borders kept changing here just like in Europe. Duh!

And I hadn’t realised that the Chinese ruled Vietnam for just over 1,000 years – from 111BC to 938AD. That explains the Chinese characters on the older buildings. Chinese characters were used until the 19th Century when the French changed everyone over to a phonetic system using the Roman alphabet – the change being accelerated by education becoming more prevalent. And I recognised several words, for example, when my dressmaker told her colleague to ask Ros to come and give me advice on the dress I was getting made, I understood her say ‘friend’ because it is the same as Chinese. Given my small Chinese vocabulary, I was surprised to know any, but it turns out over a third of modern Vietnamese has naturalised word borrowings from Chinese.

This Champa kingdom of My Son, which I had never heard of, ruled for about 1200 years, before being forced off their land and into the hill country by north Vietnamese who came down and invaded.  The collection of buildings at My Son was built over a 1,000 year period – 4th to 14th centuries AD, rediscovered in an almost pristine state in the early 1900’s, and then almost destroyed by a week of US bombing in the War.

And then the French control of Vietnam, the bit I already knew about, was such a blip in Vietnam’s history – 1885 to mid 1900s – not even 100 years in a country with 5,000 years of chronicled history.

This lesson seems particularly poignant now, as we seem to have a changing of the guard globally with the balance of power shifting from the West where I grew up, to the East where I am living now.

Age alone is not an excuse

One of the highlights of the trip for me was canyoning in Da Lat. When I read about it, I thought at least five of us would want to do it, so was surprised when only Christine and I did. I was standing with Raymond when I told the guy behind the counter that only two of our group would do the trip. He looked at Raymond and asked if it was him. I said ‘No, me and that woman’, pointing to Christine. He didn’t bat an eyelid (and I know because I was looking closely at them).

The day after the canyoning trip, we had the same person as our guide for the weasel coffee, cricket and silkworm eating, cycling trip. I asked him if he had been concerned when he understood who was going to do the canyoning trip. He confessed ‘yes’. But he hastened to add that when his colleague returned, his colleague had told him that we had been fine and had been better at walking through the bush than the younger people in our group. He then asked me how old I was and, when I told him, said that my age made me the oldest woman to do the trip with his company. I felt pleased, but also glad I had not told myself that I might be too old for it, because I toyed with thinking that.

I am similarly pleased that I did not listen to the voice in my head that says I might be too old to live in China, or to learn Chinese. Research is coming out saying that voices like that might contribute to people getting dementia because we stop learning and laying down new neural pathways to give our brains a better chance of finding an alternative route to damaged pathways. And I think learning and doing new stuff is much more fun.

My good friend Trish sent me an article about a female astronaut our age who holds a number of records and just broke another one earlier this month. And Julian, our friend here who is a fount of all knowledge, said that the guy who is presently winning veteran marathons didn’t start running marathons until he was in his 60s.

There will be things I can’t do as I get older. For example, I decided not to enter a fun run next month because my achilles tendons started to hurt when I was training. But I want to be a person who does not listen to any voice in my head where the only reason not to do something is ‘my age’.

Special friends are … well … special

In one way it was a bit risky deciding to travel for three weeks with our four friends.  We have counted Christine and Lawrie as special friends for nearly 30 years. We raised our children together, including our families holidaying together over Labour Weekend for many of those years. We have known Ros and Colin for half that time but also count them as two of our most special friends.

We only introduced the four of them to one another a couple of years ago and the longest we had holidayed together was for one weekend. But, yes we could trust our instincts. It was so lovely to see them again after being away from New Zealand for a year, and we had one of the best holidays of our lives.

We only had one tense moment – when I had not checked my emails, and our flight to Da Lat turned out to be changed to an hour earlier (who does that?), so we only just made it onto the plane, and Lawrie lost his Swiss army knife because we couldn’t take it on to the plane as carry on. I apologised, and he forgave me. It was not helped by the fact that I had also not booked extra luggage for that flight so had to go off to pay extra when we had so little time, and when we got to our hotel it turned out that I had misunderstood another email and not paid a 50% deposit to hold the rooms. So we had nowhere to stay – and it was raining. We soon found somewhere up the road but three ‘fails’ in the space of a few hours was definitely the lowest point of the trip for me – but my special friends forgave me, made me a cup of tea, joked, left Raymond and me alone to solve it, and mentioned it over the rest of the trip just enough times to still be funny.

I remember my mum, after she was retired, talking about her travels with her special friends – in New Zealand and overseas. We are not quite retired, but we do have more discretionary time and independent children. While we still love holidaying with our children, it is a different experience traveling with others our age and stage. Having  had such a marvelous time, I am thrilled to know that we also have four special people with whom we can build memories – for up to at least four weeks at a time anyway.

So, an eclectic bunch of new insights – some personal and could be learned anywhere, others Vietnam specific, I continue to learn and grow. What a privilege!

Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lìjiāng

Last weekend was Labour weekend in China, so Raymond and I headed south to explore Yúnnán for the three days. We had read of stunning scenery at a place called Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hŭ Tiaò Xiá). To get there we flew 1.5 hours to Lìjiāng (lovely river), famous for its ‘old town’.

To travel in China, we are learning it is easier if we research on the web ahead of time. I think this is useful anywhere, but especially relevant with limited language and so many choices. We are so appreciative of others’ help that I have decided to give a bit more advice when I blog about our trips, to give back to the travel community, and set a few things straight. All those 20 something bloggers who said that the Tiger Leaping Gorge route was pretty easy except for the one hour steep section going up the 28 zigzags were wrong! But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

To go to the airport, we use a ‘black taxi’. I have mentioned Joe before. He is a highly professional, reliable, pleasant driver who many of the teachers from Raymond’s school use. So, when I went down on Friday at 1 pm to meet him, I was surprised to find that he was not there. I wechatted him and said I was waiting. He replied ‘please wait’.  I asked in Chinese ‘how many minutes?’ He said ‘What time is the plane?’ I asked in English ‘how many minutes?’ He replied ‘I am on my way and soon’, followed by another message asking if we wanted to start from our apartment or from Raymond’s school. I said ‘I will take a taxi’, and that is where Joe found me, walking the street looking for a taxi. It turned out that Raymond’s request to pick me up and then go to his school to pick him up, when translated from English to Chinese, asked Joe to pick Raymond up from school and then come and get me. Talk about lost in translation. Joe had been waiting at school, driven the 20 minutes from school to get me, and then we drove back to the school. On the way, as we talked about what had happened, I think he understood that another time (but hopefully we will communicate better next time) he should check before coming to get me, because Raymond could have got in first at school. Luckily, I had just revised how to say ‘first … then…’. And Raymond and I realised that, to minimise confusion, we need to give even simpler instructions – a lesson we thought we had already learned.

We caught our plane, uneventfully, arrived at Lìjiāng airport and decided to get a taxi into town. Our driver was upfront about the extra 10 kuài for tolls – total just over 110 kuài. She dropped us off outside Lìjiāng old town, both miming and talking to communicate that she could not drive us any further, and that we needed to cross the road, walk down a bit and take the first right. So off we went and discovered that this old town part of Lìjiāng is stunning. We loved it immediately. It must be what Chinese towns used to look like, now with a mixture of modern and traditional wares and food places, and lots of travel agencies.

We followed our driver’s instructions, walked along the cobblestones enjoying the ambience, reading the English and Chinese looking for our hotel – Lìjiāng Boutique Rénwén Inn. Because we are such experienced travelers, I had cleverly taken a screenshot of our hotel details. After walking the right hand loop, and not finding our hotel, we searched on Dù, our local maps app, and redid the loop. Ok, let’s try Google maps with VPN. Our various routes had taken us back and forth past a friendly gentleman encouraging people into his restaurant. So our next plan of attack was to ask him if he knew our hotel. He did, so he mimed and talked directions, which then made it a bit awkward when we needed to walk unsuccessfully past him a couple more times – just wave and smile. Plan C, or maybe D, was to pop into one of the many travel agencies. Number 1 was unhelpful, but number 2 was very clever. She rang the phone number and arranged for someone from our hotel to come and get us – highly recommended approach.

We followed our enthusiastic young host in the opposite direction to all our earlier routes, to the left of the main drag and Dù and Google’s suggestions. The name on the door did not match our hotel name. When I expressed concern, ‘chain hotel’ was the answer. It was a lovely little place, and unbelievably good value for about NZD20 per night. We are still not sure what really happened, but were happy.  Our young host and I communicated effectively in a mixture of Chinese and English, and his mum understood me, but I could not understand her.

I had read that tickets for the bus to the gorge tend to sell out so we asked our young host for advice on where to go to buy bus tickets. Armed with our paper map on which he had circled the bus stop and bus ticket sales outlet, we went back up to the main road, where our taxi had dropped us off, to catch a number 2 bus. We waited a while but no buses drove past, so we decided to get a taxi. Using our map, I arranged for the driver to take us, wait and return. Then Raymond hopped in grinning because our bus had gone past while I had my head in the window talking to the driver.

We drove through Lìjiāng getting a sense of the layout of the place, seeing the rest of the old town, cascading down the hill and lit up beautifully in the evening, and wound down the hill through the modern part to the ticket shop. Our driver dropped us off, we walked in the direction he had seemed to point, could not find anything resembling a bus ticket sales place, circled back, rejoined our driver who took us to a travel agent, who pointed over the road. There, we still struggled, and approached some street food vendors, one of whom hopped up, took us a minute further around, and pointed to the ticket shop – with its closed garage door. Oh well, let’s get up early tomorrow.

We went back to the friendly gentleman’s restaurant and had the local delicacy they recommended – which turned out to be chicken and mushroom soup, but not as we know it – brothy rather than creamy. She had encouraged us to share the smaller serving, which was just as well. The enormous bowl bubbled away on the gas burner on our table and we ate as much as we could, finally leaving half of it behind as we headed back to the hotel.

Saturday morning, we left our hotel at 7am, caught the famous number 2 bus to the shop, where in the light of day we could read the sign telling us the bus ticket place opening hours – 8am to 9pm. We only missed it by a few minutes last night, and an hour to go. Breakfast from our friendly street food vendors and let’s explore the park. A bit after 8am the sole woman employee opened the shop, stopped her sweeping when we arrived, walked behind the counter, started up her computer, was helpful but slow and 20 minutes later concluded ‘no tickets, but you can try the bus station’. What, you mean we could have gone there the whole time, including this morning and last night?!  We walked the ten minutes, found out that the earliest available seats were at 11am, and shared a car to the gorge with a Chinese couple who had got married the day before.

The driver showed us all where to buy tickets for the gorge, dropped us off at the beginning of the high level track, and then took our companions to the start of the one day lower level track.

The first part of the middle gorge walk is a concrete road with large trucks going up and down, and you look across the river to the massive infrastructure project on the other side, which we assume is part of China’s vision for high speed rail over the whole country. Not quite what I imagined when others described stunning scenery, but I am learning to go with the flow (eventually). It started off at a steady gradient, but manageable. Then the concrete stopped and it got really steep with steps winding up the hill – the famous 28 bends – I was glad when they were over. Dotted along the route were men with horses whose English extended to ‘horse’. Bú yào mă (don’t want a horse) I replied, tempted as I was – reasoning that the fact that I wanted one so much was evidence that I should not use one.

Then we couldn’t see the earthworks any more, the path became more undulating, we stopped for drinks and a nibble under the shade of a tree, chatted as we went to a couple of Swedish couples over from Shànghăi, and arrived at the first village.

As we walked past Naxi Guest House, we wondered if our hotel was nearby, four hours earlier than I understood from my web research – how encouraging. Then we came to a sign saying that it was another three hours to Tea Horse Guest House and two more to Halfway, where we were staying – how discouraging, an hour longer than I understood from my web research. But we had plenty of energy, were over the worst bit, and carried on.

Then we came to the real 28 bends – very steep, slabs of slate to walk on, path zig zagging vertically back and forth. Ten minutes walking, two minutes stopping – ‘ we have plenty of time’, ‘it is not a race’. Eventually, I set aside my feminist philosophy and gave Raymond my pack.I found it very hard work.

And then the worst was over. We stopped in the next village for a cup of tea and coffee and got talking to a couple of Chinese from Kūnmíng who had good English (although our conversation began with how good my Chinese had been when I ordered our drinks – instant friend!) They were there with their regular walking group, and talked about how the track used to be dominated by westerners, but was growing in popularity with Chinese tourists. Certainly, on our trip, three-quarters of those we saw looked Chinese.

Refuelled, we continued, but I never fully recovered – not helped by Raymond, Sofia from Kūnmíng, and I taking a half hour detour up a hill instead of along the flatter path, to which we then had to return (hour total). We finally arrived 7.5 hours after we had started, exhausted. We wonder whether the highish altitude affected us more than we realised at the time.

I had read good things about the Ben Li Wan Family Hotel and we were not disappointed – it was clean, our en suite shower was hot and sooooo what we needed, the food was delicious, the staff were helpful, including getting us as many pots of tea as we asked for, and the mountain view out of our room was stunning – in fact so stunning that before I went to sleep, I felt it was all worth it. And this place will forever be special to us – what a place to get the wonderful news that Andrew and Cindy were now engaged.

The next morning, we woke, had relaxed cups of tea and breakfast before setting off about 10am, feeling a bit pressured that as we were only halfway, we might not make it back in time, and thinking that if need be we would have to overnight at another guesthouse and go back to Lìjiāng on Monday.

But by 11.30am we had arrived at Tina’s Guesthouse. It turns out the other ‘half’ is this short jaunt, plus a three hour walk down to Tiger Leaping Stone and back, or other options to waterfalls etc. We decided not to bother – we felt we had seen so much lovely scenery on the way, and our feet were sore. Another tea and coffee and then we found a beautiful spot a few minutes away, and sat by the waterfall there and waited for the 3.30pm bus back to Lìjiāng , where we had already booked a second night at our friendly hotel.

My advice to other over 50s – with reasonable fitness levels but not quite what you used to be – is, yes, do the walk, but stop for your first night at Tea Horse Guest House five hours in, having done the 28 bends but not yet absolutely shattered (and avoid the detour). Then, day 2, leave from there about 10am confident that you will get to Tina’s in time for the 3.30pm bus. And, book bus tickets at Tea Horse. We did get bus tickets at Tina’s but, for reasons we never quite understood, it was not initially straight forward. We never made the trip down to the Tiger Leaping Stone so cannot comment on whether or not that would be worth it, but I would suggest staying a second night/third day to do that.

Back in Lìjiāng , we settled in and then went walking for somewhere to find dinner, eventually settling on a small local ‘restaurant’ with a very friendly hostess. There were only four tables, you could see her husband cooking behind the shelves. Our two key criteria were met – she called out and invited us in, which signals a willingness to work at communicating with foreigners, and there were pictures of food on the walls. We had a wonderful time – nice food, and chatting with our hostess and another older woman dining with her family, who seemed particularly fascinated by us and wanted to chat as much as my limited Chinese would allow. She knew New Zealand – that it is small and has milk.

The next day, we left our larger pack at our hotel and explored Lìjiāng old town. First, somewhere to eat breakfast – using our friendliness criteria again. Pictures were not necessary because we could see it all being cooked out the front. Then, we just wandered. We were entranced by the man making the shawls on his loom so I bought one, later realising that he can’t have made all the identical shawls being sold in every shawl shop in Lìjiāng. We found a place selling coffee to keep Raymond happy, and relaxed there people watching, including seeing how a couple cooked and packaged biscuits. These purple biscuits seemed to be famous in Lìjiāng because they also were being sold everywhere. Having watched the woman rolling out the biscuits pick her nose, we knew one place we didn’t want to buy them from. We enjoyed the ‘free’ (if you don’t count the fee to get into the old town) dancing show, then found the Experiencing Hall of Naxi Hieroglyphics Painting.

The Dongba hieroglyphics are the oldest living form of hieroglyphics, because they are still used today. Historical records show the script was used in 7th century, but it may be up to 7,000 years old. A single pictograph can be used to recite different phrases or an entire sentence. The script is logical – when a symbol is drawn upside down it indicates negation, straight lines drawn between people indicates ‘fight’, entwined lines represent ‘discuss’, and a dead animal is drawn as usual but without pupils in their eyes. We were quite fascinated. Eventually, we succumbed to temptation, and the focused attention of the salesman, to buy a hieroglyphics embroidery to remind us of our wonderful holiday.

Back to the hotel, pick up our pack and out to the airport. We had never managed to find out where the airport bus left from so decided to wave down a taxi. The first one to stop was a minivan already heading out there. The woman asked for 120 kuài . I thought ‘I know we can get it for 110 in a metered taxi’, so said, ‘No thanks, too expensive, I know we can get it cheaper’, thinking she would drop to 110. Next, she offered 70! My best bargaining yet. As we got out and I paid her, Raymond said ‘I think she likes you’ – I guess my amazing bargaining earned her respect.

Certainly, I was very encouraged on this trip that I seem to have graduated from Chinglish to the next stage – Chineglish? I can say whole sentences, effectively communicate on a range of useful travel topics, and everyone seems to understand me. Unfortunately,  they then talk back to me in Chinese and I still have to work out how to understand them.

So, another wonderful holiday, in a place we had never heard of before coming here, would strongly recommend, and which increases our fascination with our adopted country.

Some of the tea in China

I am an avid tea drinker. I have more cups of tea a day than I have cups of coffee a year. And, I am fascinated by the history and culture of China, which has to include understanding tea – 茶 (chá). So, when the Chéngdū Foreign Affairs Office, Chéngdū Education Bureau and PŭJiāng County Government invited teachers from Raymond’s school to a tea picking event, I (and therefore we) jumped at the chance.

There are Chinese records of tea consumption dating back to the 10th century, and the world’s earliest physical record indicates that Hàn Dynasty emperors were drinking tea for medicinal purposes in 2nd century BC. A popular Chinese tale takes it further, saying that in 2737 BC the legendary Emperor of China was drinking a bowl of just boiled water (interestingly, having decreed that his subjects must boil water before drinking it) and leaves from a nearby tree blew into his water. He took a sip, liked the flavour and tea was born. The first record of cultivation of tea, also from the 10th century, shows tea being cultivated on Méng Mountain (蒙山) near our beloved Chéngdū .

Tea spread to the rest of Asia from 6th century BC, was introduced from China to Portuguese priests and merchants in the 16th century and made it to Britain (and my ancestors) during the 17th century. Then the British, as they tended to do, actively changed the order of things, by introducing tea production, as well as tea consumption, to India, in order to compete with China’s monopoly on tea.

Last Saturday, at 7.50am, with some of  Raymond’s colleagues and their family members, we hopped on a bus the school provided, and traveled 1.5 hours from Chéngdū to PŭJiāng. I had that kiwi assumption thing going on – visiting tea plantations would mean a  rural environment. So when the bus stopped in an urban environment, I was quite surprised. We were ushered to a registration table with people everywhere, then into a nearby room with long log tables and two women performing a synchronised tea ceremony. We were given cups of tea in not-so-traditional paper cups, and some interesting looking biscuits that tasted very nice. A Chinese gentleman siting nearby told us, in broken English, that we were drinking the sparrow tongue tea famous in this region. It didn’t look like it was made from real sparrow tongues.

Next we were led out to a large number of seats and taken to those with the school’s name on. We were quite bemused by all of this because we had only skimmed the invitation email and had missed the fact that we were being invited to the opening ceremony for the annual Pu Jiang Tea Picking Festival. Luckily, we are getting used to going with the flow. We had translation headsets so could understand what was happening. We watched the Festival officially opened, the best tea pickers given their awards, a couple of contracts signed, and a number of dances.

Then we followed the crowd to the restaurant where we had an amazing lunch. We must have only eaten half of what was crammed onto our table. There were the usual local dishes, with our usual coping strategies. Avoid the dishes with the reddest sauce, pick out the chillies where necessary, only take the vegetables when unsure of the animal part in the meat dishes, and enjoy the dumplings and plain vegetables. The four foreigners at our table enjoyed the meatballs, which we have not seen here before. They tasted like I might have made (a few herbs, no spice, gravy rather than oily sauce) and the locals did not touch them. Maybe the chef made them specially.

After lunch, we followed the crowd again, donned our hats and tied on our tea picking baskets. Then we went behind the manicured gardens around the restaurant and there was a tea plantation – hiding behind all the buildings. We picked our way past the basketball court, through the mud and to the bushes. We were with Raymond’s colleague who speaks Chinese and his Chinese wife, so we found out exactly which bits to pick – take the sparrow tongue shaped bud in the centre and leave the outer leaves. When we reconvened others had not been so well trained. Most had picked the leaves and the centre, and one guy had only taken the leaves, leaving the central bud so the plant could survive. We laugh a lot here.

We handed in our leaves and traveled in the bus to a local school where they teach tea craft. We learned a bit of theory from sculptures depicting the eight steps of tea making. I remember three things. Traditionally, only young virgins were allowed to pick tea thanks to their purity. The leaves were rolled in bags using feet and hands – now they use machines. And, the text by the sculptures linked tea making and approaches to education – but I don’t remember the details – sorry.

Then we went into the school’s small factory, and saw the machines they use. We had a go at drying leaves in large electric heating bowls – wearing gloves to protect our hands. Fascinating, but luckily, we did not have to wait until our tea was dry enough to use. It got very repetitive after a short time. It must have been even more so for those doing it by hand over fires years ago.Then we were taken to try our hands at calligraphy and watch school children perform a short tàijí session.

Our last stop was a classroom set up to train students in tea ceremony. We were taken through a ceremony in all its detail. I don’t think we managed such graceful flourishes as our teacher, although I tried – and got rewarded by the official photographer grabbing his camera to capture the moment. I hope they got a good laugh from it later. And I am sure we spilled more tea into the tray below the beautiful wooden stand. However, we did glimpse the tradition and sense of occasion that a tea ceremony brings. We must appear boorish with our quick jiggle of a tea bag in our massive cups, and even more so if they saw my system in our kitchen for reusing tea bags. Even I think this looks unseemly – but it is practical in a world of limited tea bag access.

 

As we left, we were given a beautiful box with four types of tea in it.I tend to be set in my ways with tea. In our apartment, I usually use Liptons or Twinings English Breakfast, Early Grey or ‘gumboot’ teabags, just like back in New Zealand. We did buy some barley tea after enjoying it during our trip north east, and we occasionally drink that – but need to be in the mood. When I first started at work, my business partner gave me some Chinese black tea (hóng chá, literally red tea – it is as red as it is black if you think about it). I have branched out enough to drink this like a Chinese person – putting my leaves in a cup each morning and topping it up with water all through the day. One day I tried another colleague’s chrysanthemum tea – literally dried chrysanthemums in hot water. Mine was too weak for me to taste anything, but now I know what those things are that I see floating in others’ plastic bottles.

I have almost finished my box of black tea at work, so will take our new ones in and see if I can become more adventurous as well as more informed.