Thursday, 31 January 2008

Our flight to Chengdu was short and sweet, and we were met by our newest guide, Oliver. Of course he has a Chinese name, one we could barely pronounce and could never remember. When they become a guide, they select an English name to give their tour groups. Our previous guide, Joe, said he chose his name because there were already too many Peters in the office. Oliver said he was given his name back in school in his first English class and decided to stick with it as his guide name. If I ever become a guide for Spanish-speakers, I guess I’ll choose Maria, that’s what I was christened back in seventh grade, first year Spanish. Clay would be Paco.

We headed off for some sight-seeing before checking into the hotel, I was surprised at the size of the city. It turns out Chengdu is the sixth largest city in China, with a population of 11 million. We talked about the colder weather, it’s all the talk in China right now. They haven’t seen snow like this in more than fifty years, a blanket of white covered everything in sight as our plane landed. A haze hung over the city, mostly pollution, Oliver said they get an average of four hours of sunlight a day. I held my breath for a minute, but decided that would not be a very realistic way to avoid breathing pollution for the next two days. Oliver said that Chengdu is thought of as a place to relax, a care free city that many people come to for vacation. It’s said that if kids come, they don’t want to go back to their hometown and school and work. Chengdu is too nice to leave. This didn’t jive with the pollution, but as we drove I did notice a lot more green.

Our first destination was the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. Oliver explained that 85% of wild pandas live in the Chengdu area, they love the bamboo and the climate. More than 60 are kept at the research center, and as we walked into the reserve I realized how little green we saw in Beijing and Xian. Green bamboo rose above our heads, green plants fringed small ponds, and flowers lined the walkways. It was a very pretty place, and we soon encountered our first pandas. I don’t think I’ve ever seen pandas in real life before, they were roly-poly creatures that lolled on their backs in a half-sitting position while they munched on bamboo. One of them stripped leaves off the branches and held them in its paw, when he had a big bundle he chomped on them like a big leaf sandwich. The other took big bites of the thick bamboo pole, crunching it like potato chips. They broke the thick bamboo easily, and they have a sort of thumb in their paws that helped them hold on to things.

These pandas are lazy, they sleep ten hours a day and eat ten hours a day. I sometimes feel sorry for animals kept in captivity, imagining they miss the wild, but these pandas, I think they are very content. This is the Club Med for pandas, they get plenty of nice, fresh, bamboo and trees to climb and in the summer they even have air conditioned rooms to sleep in.

We walked past lots of different pens, each one with at least two adult pandas, and reached one enclosure that held seven babies, all about six months old. They were so absolutely adorable, they looked like live teddy bears. Little live toys that tumbled and rolled and gamboled around. They would try and climb a tree, toppling off and rolling on their back. There were two people in the enclosure, dressed in blue surgical gowns, who helped the little cubs and kept an eye on them. Alayna determined this place would be a model for her ape habitat someday, and we all wished we could be in there to pick the little guys up and cuddle them. One woman knelt down and nuzzled one of the little cubs, she picked them up occasionally and they did not look light. She had to really heave and strain to lug them around.

There were several little kids visiting, I think little Chinese kids are so cute with their bright pink cheeks and dark eyes. Our kids always get lots of attention, especially Benji. I find myself admiring these little Chinese babies just as much as they admire Benji, though I’m not quite as touchy-feely, and I’ve never gotten my picture taken with one of them. I’m tempted.

We thoroughly enjoyed out encounter with the pandas, and just walking around the pretty complex was a nice change from the big cities and barren gardens and sightseeing landmarks we’d encountered thus far in China. Chengdu is a greener place, even with the pollution. For lunch we were taken to a hotel restaurant. As we entered the dining room, we encountered five tables of drunken Communist soldiers, having an early New Year’s celebration lunch. It was loud and smoky and overwhelming. It seemed all eyes were on the honkies as sweet Oliver seated us as far as he could from the chaos. They brought us dessert first, I think all the food had been snarfed up by the soldier party, but we eventually were served tons of different dishes on our Lazy Susan, combining them in our tiny dishes and bowls, like eating a meal on a little kid’s tea set. The food is spicier here, pretty greasy, I preferred the rice with egg and tomato on top.

We had the option of visiting several different temples and historic sites that afternoon, but the kids were lagging after the early morning wake-up call and we were going to a performance that night, so we decided to just take a quick stroll through People’s Park. This reminded me of the Temple of Heaven, where many retired people hang out and sing or play games together. In the summer it’s a happening place, we passed tea house after tea house with hundreds of chairs stacked out front, waiting for warmer weather. It was still a nice stroll, we passed through a garden of bonsai trees and a pond where kids were feeding the goldfish, their huge open lips coming out of the water in perfect “o’s”.

After the park, we went back to the hotel and persuaded the kids to take a nap before we set out again that evening. We woke in time to grab a quick dinner. There were plenty of fast food places around our hotel, we had our eyes on a Pizza Hut, but there was a huge wait when we got there so we retreated to McDonald’s. This is where the real people are hanging out, it was totally packed. There wasn’t a table available in the huge seating area, so we got our stuff to go. Somehow, even after pointing to pictures, we ended up with three extra sandwiches and an extra drink, but since it all cost about $9 for our family of five, it didn’t really matter.

We had our McDonald’s picnic feast on the floor of Mom and Dad’s hotel room, it was nice to eat on our own instead of a restaurant. To lay back on the floor and let the kids get up and wander and talk without yelling over drunken Communist soldiers. Peaceful. The van came at 7:30 to pick us up for the show. When we arrived we entered through ornate Chinese gates, where a sign offered a massage for 50 Yuan or an ear cleaning for 40 Yuan. We were seated in rows with little table in front of us, a woman poured us tea from an extremely long-handled tea pot. She had to stand about three feet away to pour it, and it was always a little exciting, to see if she would get the steaming water into the cup, or in my lap.

There were several people in the audience getting massages, before and during the performance, but I didn’t see a single person getting their ears cleaned. A pity, I wondered how they did it. Did they use cotton swabs? I did notice that after the masseuse gave someone a head and foot massage, he started in on the next person without cleaning his hands first. Mom said she saw him sniffing them as he moved to his next customer. Eww.

The show was entertaining, there was some Chinese opera where we could only guess at the meaning of the over-exaggerated faces and voices. Their microphones were a little messed up, it reminded me of the scene in Singing in the Rain where they put the microphone on the lady’s shoulder, and every time her head moves her voice fades. The singers’ voices faded in and out, but since they were speaking Mandarin it didn’t really matter to us. Other acts were more enjoyable. A man came out with a puppet on sticks above his head, he controlled the puppet woman’s arms with one hand while his hand that was inside the puppet controlled her eyes and head. I don’t know how he was able to get this puppet to pick up and twirl handkerchiefs, grab the feathers in her hat, or pick a flower from a vase. He was really talented.

We also enjoyed the shadow puppet show. A man got behind a white screen and did amazing things with his hands. He made a flying bird, a running horse, and a dog that ate a rabbit, choking it down his throat. This got good laughs from the crowd. By the way, we were the only white people in the room. Several times when we’ve been to these folk shows, they’re full of busloads of tourists, but this one was being enjoyed by Chinese, locals and visitors from other cities.

In another act, a man played a funny looking trumpet, holding notes for minutes on end, then using his thumb and just his plain voice to mimic trumpet sounds. His facial expressions were hilarious, and he was quite talented. Another talented musician played an instrument with just one string on it, and somehow he made all sorts of notes come out of it. In another act a woman and man came out, and while I’m not sure exactly what was happening it involved the man holding a bowl with a flame in it balanced on his bald head. He made some crazy expressions and had everyone laughing. The finale was called Changing Faces, and in it two dancers came out with masks on their faces. They would either turn around or put a fan to their face, and when you saw their face again a split second alter it had a different mask on. Each dancer changed their masks four or five times, I never could figure out how they did it.

We got back from the show still talking about how they changed their mask and what in the world the guy with the flame on his head was doing. Even after their nap, the kids fell asleep easily, lots to process in their brains. We see so many things in a day. Tomorrow we’ll check out in the morning, we’ll fly out of Chengdu tomorrow night. On the road again . . .


Friday, 1 February 2008

“Five more days until my birthday!” Nate is counting down the days, I can’t believe he’ll be nine. We told him the whole United States is excited about his birthday, they’re calling it Super Tuesday! This morning we took a long drive to see some sights, driving two and a half hours to get there. Along the way we passed fields full of pretty yellow flowers. Oliver told us they got grape seeds from the flowers, used to make the oil. We also passed terraced fields of tea leaves, it was pretty countryside. We got through another math lesson, caught up on journals, let the kids play their DS games for a while.

We planned this part of the trip last April, and we often forget exactly what we said we wanted to see. Oliver asked us how we had heard about this first sight, the Thousand Buddha Cliffs. Clay couldn’t remember where he had heard about them, and Oliver mentioned that very few tourists visit these Buddhas.  He said he hasn’t been there for four years, that most of the Buddhas have been defaced, their heads and feet cut off, and the sight doesn’t make it onto many itineraries. He actually seemed pretty excited about going, but we were a little dubious. What had we done? Were we driving all this way for decapitated Buddhas?

We drove through a tiny little town, stopped to ask directions, and were dropped off next to a quiet little street. We all bundled up, hopped off, and began walking down the street. I loved walking down this street, where everyday people did everyday things in a small town in China. A man used his hands to gut a fish that still flapped its tail while a puppy tried to steal some tidbits. People carried their things in baskets on their backs, like backpacks. Through open doors we saw men sitting at a table, playing mahjong. I peeked through open doors, trying to get a glimpse into other people’s lives. One room’s walls were totally covered with newspapers, a rusty bicycle rested against a wall in a narrow alley.

At the end of the street we reached the red cliffs where the Buddhas had been carved. They were not big and impressive, and indeed most of them were missing their heads. But we heard birds singing, and I realized it was one of the few times since we’ve been in China that I’ve heard a bird sing, we head out to the countryside soon. Water ran beside the path where we walked, and a ferry crossed a wide river. I found the everyday life just as interesting, if not more interesting, than the figures that had been carved in the red rock. This was no tourist trap. No souvenirs were being sold, no pushy salespeople grabbed our arms or pleaded. A great destination.

We walked back down the street and headed to the Da Fo Buddha, the largest Buddha statue in the world, carved into the side of a cliff. We climbed 300 steps, even Mom and Dad, to get to eye level with this massive sculpture. Oliver told us how it took 90 years and three determined men to finally complete the Buddha, it was built to protect boats that often capsized down below the sight, where three rivers come together. We could have all fit in this Buddha’s ear. Six people could use the Buddha’s big toe for a dinner table, and one hundred people could fit in his instep. It was just a cool, huge thing.

This was definitely a sight. Souvenirs and salespeople included, down at the base. But, we were very thankful to be here in the winter. Unoccupied were the bars to control the lines that come here in the summer, when people wait hours just to get to the face, and hours more just to climb the stairs down to see the Buddha from different angle. We had no crowds, no lines, no waiting. It was definitely worth the hat and gloves and coats.

Oliver told us some interesting stories as we toured the sight. The first monk who was inspired to build the Buddha collected a lot of money from a local official, but when the official heard that the money would be used for the Buddha he was very angry, and forbid it. The monk was so upset he said he would rather tear his eyeballs out than not use the money for the Buddha, so the official said go ahead, and the official did. He tore his own eyeballs out. The official was impressed enough to let him build it. That got plenty of questions from the boys, “How do you tear your eyeballs out? That would hurt.” I’m sure we will be having eyeball discussions for weeks to come.

Oliver also pointed out a wooden fish in the temple, and explained the monks beat a rhythm on it when they pray. There was a story about this fish, legend says there was once a monk who traveled to India to get some important books about Buddhism (Buddhism came to China from India, many famous and important monks made pilgrimages there). When he got there he came to a very wide river he could not cross, and a fish appeared that agreed to take the monk across on his back in return for a favor. The fish didn’t want to be a fish anymore, he wanted to be human, and he asked the monk to pray to the gods for this to happen. The monk crossed the river on the fish’s back, got the Buddhist books he came for, and returned to the river. On the return trip the fish asked the monk, while in the middle of the river, if he had remembered to pray for him. The monk said no, he forgot, and the fish was so angered it tossed the monk and his books off his back.

The monk swam to shore but the books were lost. The monk went back to China, where he had all monks place a wooden fish in their temple. When they prayed, they were to beat on the fish, and words would emerge from its mouth, words from the books that had been lost. To this day, you will find wooden fish in Chinese temples. Now, this sounds like a great children’s book, except I have questions like “Did it work, did words come out of the fishes mouth?” and “What about the fish, did it ever become human?” We come across all sorts of interesting stories on this trip, lots of fodder for the mill when I get home and have time to write stories again. Stories besides our own.

I have lots of questions when I walk through these temples, like in one there were statues of men to the side of the three Buddhas, past, present, and future. The men were said to be “freshman”, young students of the Buddha. In this particular temple one of the statues was picking his ear with a toothpick with a pained expression on his face. What was that all about? And in another, in front of the statue of the monk who first started building the giant Buddha, there was a plastic case with offerings for the statues inside. A pack of Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies was in there, and that just doesn’t seem like a very holy thing to me. And what happens to all those offerings? When the apples and other fruit go bad, what do they do with them? And who does something with them? The monks?

After the giant Buddha we got back in the van and headed back to Chengdu to make our night flight to the next stop, Lijiang. When we got to the airport, we waited in line with our luggage, only to be told at the counter that we couldn’t check in yet, come back in half an hour. We waited, got back in line, got to the front again, and were told we still couldn’t check in, and she couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell us when to come back. At this point we were getting a little peeved. Oliver went to have a word with the airline supervisor while we waited. He returned with bad news, the plane was delayed 3½ hours, until 10:30pm. Ugh.

We said goodbye to Oliver, who reminded us to check the flight board every half hour or so to check on the status of our plane. The board said it would be a 10:30pm departure so we decided to get some dinner at the airport restaurant. You would not believe some of the items on that menu, so I copied them down word for word. Here are a few of the more interesting ones, copied word for word:

Appetizing yellow eel shreds

Fragrance filled the hole earthen jar (only one ingredient was listed: chicken claw)

The couple lung slices (ingredients: ox’s heart and tongue, hide)

Sautéed goose intestines with green pepper

We found none of these appetizing, but we did find a few that sounded good. We played a round of emperor while we waited for our food, and when the food it arrived, lo and behold, it was one of the best meals in China we’ve had so far. In the airport, of all places! We were just digging in when mom mentioned we might want to check that flight board. Clay got up to do the honors, and returned with a wild look in his eyes. “It says 7pm again, and I’m not kidding,” he declared, grabbing a duffle and his backpack and heading out. It was 6:35pm. What happened to the 3 ½ hour delay? Dad and I followed with the bags to check, I told mom and the kids to wait at the table until we were sure.

We went to the “late passenger” line, that line we first saw back in Beijing with all those frantic people. One of the things we’ve noticed about most Chinese people is that they aren’t very good at lines. They cut all the time, and usually it doesn’t matter, but this time the men were not standing for it. One man tried to step in front of Dad, he had some words and made it known there would be no cutting. Clay was waiting in a different line, and when a man stepped in front of him and laid his ticket on the counter, Clay threw the ticket off the counter behind him and muscled his way up. I ran back to get the kids while the men handled getting the boarding passes and checking the luggage. We all flew out of the restaurant, leaving almost all that yummy food uneaten. Luckily, we’d already paid. We were all in panic mode, we had twenty minutes to make our flight and we hadn’t gone through security yet.

When we all hustled up to the counter, the woman was explaining to Clay that our names weren’t on the flight, they were on a different flight, which left two hours later. She wrote down the new flight number and we gathered up our bags, expelled for the third time from a line. Our adrenaline was still pumping, and we had nowhere to run. I sent Nate back into the restaurant to see if any of our food was still left, but he returned to report that the rice was floating in a bowl of soy sauce and all the drinks were gone. The table was in the process of being bused.

Oliver found us a few minutes later to fill us in on what happened. Apparently, the plane we had been scheduled to fly on was having major mechanical difficulties, Oliver said it wouldn’t be leaving in three hours. It was still in a different airport and would probably not leave until the next morning. The travel agency in China that we booked our tour through had become aware of the situation and booked us on a different flight, thank goodness. Why the flight board was changed back to the original 7pm departure is a mystery to us, but we settled in to wait another half hour before we would be allowed to check our baggage. The kids, by the way, were perfectly fine with the situation. They were getting more DS time than they’ve had this whole trip, their faces were bathed in an eerie glow from their screens and their eyes were glazed. They got plenty of attention from other Chinese kids leaning over their shoulders to see what they were playing. I even saw one dad taking a picture of his daughter watching Alayna play her game.

A bat flew across the large expanse of the terminal. The bathroom only had squatty potties. By the way, I have a squatty potty tip. While squatting, put your nose inside you shirt to avoid smelling any offensive odors, and there are plenty to avoid. It was a weird night. We finally got in that line one more time, and this time we were rewarded with our boarding tickets. We breezed through security, found some seats, and waited. As we waited to board the plane, the boarding time came and went without a word. Then the original flight time of 9:10 went by. Still no word about the status of the flight. Finally, we boarded at 9:50pm, walking under the sign that still reported an on time departure of 9:10pm. We hoped they flew the plane better than they updated the signs at this airport.

The kids all fell asleep on the one hour flight, when the wheels first touched the runway people started getting out of their seats to get their bags, opening overhead compartments. Wait a minute, didn’t these people know that items could shift during the flight? On every flight we’ve had in China, people have gotten up as soon as the plane landed, not waiting for the plane to stop taxiing, let alone for the fasten seat belt sign to turn off. And on every flight the stewardesses have run down the aisle, admonishing, and the people have closed the compartments and sat back down. Where do they think they’re going to go, anyway? Open up the emergency hatch and take off down the runway?

The seat belt sign finally did turn off, I knew it would, and we woke up the kids and groggily walked into the airport. The cold, cold airport. We found our luggage and our guide. His tour guide name is “Sam”. When we got to the parking lot we all tried to squish into a nine passenger ban with our luggage, it was a tight fit. We started out in Beijing with a ridiculously large bus for the seven of us, we each could have our own seat. I put two bags in my lap, Clay squeezed in the back with the three kids. It was snowing lightly outside.

 We knew, from the itinerary, that we would be staying in the old town of Lijiang, where cars are not allowed. The fifteen minute walk that had seemed romantic and fun if attempted at 8PM, no longer seemed so appealing at 11:45PM. We were dropped off, our luggage was loaded into a van that was apparently exempt from the “no car” policy, and then the driver had mercy on us. We loaded into the back of the van, positioning ourselves around our luggage, thankful for the warmth. I looked around me, at my bewildered kids and my mom all hunched up, trying to get comfortable sitting on the floor of the van surrounded by our luggage. “Where are we going?” Benji asked, his hair wild and his eyes wide and confused. My mom laughed, it was all too ridiculous.

We got to the hotel, tucked the kids into bed after midnight, and settled into our room. Our tiny room. I sat on the twin bed. The hard bed. It was hard like a board. Our room was cold except for directly under the air vent by the front door. I weighed the options. Sleep on the floor under the air vent or invade Clay’s twin bed in search of warmth. I invaded. We fought for the covers all night long. It was a dark, dark night.