Saturday, 9 February 2008

We said our goodbyes to the mountain retreat and got in the car for a four hour trip to Ping An. We decided we’d still visit the area, famous for its terraced rice fields, and then return to Guilin for our night in the lap of luxury with heat and hot water and flushable toilet paper, we hoped. The road wound around and around, even the guide got a little car sick as we approached Ping An. At one point we had to leave our bus and driver and get in a different one. As John bought our tickets we were accosted by some very aggressive long-haired ladies.

On the way to Ping An John told us about the two main minority tribes in the area. The Zhuang people are known for their “long-haired ladies”. The women of this tribe cut their hair only three times in the life, once when they are five and beginning school, once when they get married, and once when they die. Technically, someone else probably cuts their hair this last time. A woman’s beauty is judged by how long her hair was, they save their hair from the time they are born, gathering any loose strands that break off when they brush it, and saving the strands when they are cut. They keep these loose hairs all bound together, and tie them in to the hair still on their head, winding it all up in a big bun that they cover with a scarf. When someone dies, their relatives save the woman’s hair, keeping it as a treasured account of their beautiful ancestors.

I think we will remember these women as much for their pushiness as their long hair. As soon as we came off our bus we were mobbed by a dozen of them, shouting “hello, hello, hello” and shoving postcards and wooden ducks and jewelry in our faces. We walked in circles, trying to get away from them, but they persisted in following us no matter how many times we said “no thank you”, then just “no”, then just a steely stare into the distance. One old, wrinkled lady threw her arm around mom and said “hallo, hallo, so nice to meet you,” and tried to plant a big kiss on her cheek. I found John and stayed right behind him while he bought our tickets, then we all high-tailed it into our bus as soon as we got ourselves a driver.

 The local bus was driven by a local driver “who knows the roads”. The necessity of this became apparent as we began to climb the narrow, winding road. The drop off was straight down, Mom found herself sitting on the wrong side of the bus and tried to avoid looking out the window. We passed some broken branches and Mom wondered if it was from the ice. Clay suggested maybe it was from the last time a bus fell off the cliff. He wasn’t being very helpful. We did pass some lovely terraced fields and some different-looking houses as we drove up, up, up the mountain. These people live way up high. Their homes are wooden structures, much larger than the minority tribe homes we’ve encountered in other villages. Of course they house multiple generations of families; that seems to be very common throughout Asia. Most were two stories, with storage or a business on the bottom floor and the home above.

The village almost reminded me of a ski village as we disembarked from the bus and began a hike. Little wooden houses dotted the steep landscape, and snow and ice covered the ground. It actually reminded me of a ski village after a little thaw and during construction, the ice was dirty, there were lots of muddy parts, and tons of new homes were going up. They recently had a major ice storm and there were broken bamboo branches and thick chunks of ice everywhere. We passed a transformer lying on its side with wires going across the path, the reason we had changed our accommodations. Our ultimate goal on this hike was the crest of the hill, where we’d see a great view of all the terraced rice fields, but on the way we stopped for lunch at the place where we would have stayed the night.

Man, were we glad we weren’t spending the night. There was no heat, and it was really cold. Fifteen degrees Fahrenheit during the day. We weren’t moving anymore to keep our blood circulating while we waited for our lunch, and I wondered if my toes were getting frostbitten. I wouldn’t know, since I couldn’t feel them. I think Mom ate in her gloves. Our breath hung in the air. We ate quickly and got back on the trail, ready to get the blood moving.

We finally made to the peak, and the view really was spectacular. The terraces stepped all the way down the hill, in wavy lines, and even in the winter when everything was dead it was amazing. I marveled at how it must look when it’s all green and planted. There were postcards at the top that showed pictures of the fields all green with growing rice, or the sun reflecting off each terrace filled with water. Also at the top of the hill were another group of pushy long-haired women, and they began to follow us down the mountain. They didn’t just follow, they kept yelling “hello, hello, hello” and shoving things at us. I could hear my mom behind us, politely saying “no thank you, no thank you”. And then she snapped. “I said no, no, no, no, no!” she yelled, waving her arms back and forth, clearing the crowd of ladies. John had a quick word with them (he should have done that a long time ago!) and they finally left. Mom shook her head and said the unthinkable, “Gee-willikers!” I couldn’t get to the kid’s ears in time. “I don’t know how else to say no,” she proclaimed. Neither did I, but apparently John did. I wished I had listened a little closer so I could say whatever he said next time.

Our experience tainted a bit by the pushy ladies, we were all ready to head back to Guilin and our next hotel. Upon arrival, almost everyone got a hot shower and a good soak. I saved mine for morning, where I took a long shower and then sat in a filled up tub, warming up every bone in my body. It was just as lovely as a terraced rice field.


Sunday, 10 February 2008

We had a full day to fill before our flight left this evening, and Guilin in the winter is not a city known for its sights. Most people travel to Guilin to make day trips to minority tribes in the surrounding countryside (did that yesterday), or take an all day cruise on the river (not enough time for this option). We decided on two option offered by John, first a visit to a local art gallery (translate, we’ll be bringing home some sort of artwork regardless of our resolve to buy no more souvenirs), and second, a visit to a local hospital to learn more about Chinese medicine. We weren’t too sure about this second option, I told John I didn’t want to go to a hospital where we’d be around sick people and could pick up germs since we were still traveling. John looked a little disturbed by my callous comment, but assured us the “hospital” was not the kind with sick people. It was more to learn about Chinese medicine. What kind of things would we be expected to buy at this place? We’d have to wait to find out.

The art gallery was actually very interesting. We were seated in a small row and a Chinese painter, a master, painted a picture for us on an easel. With just a few strokes of his brush he painted some bamboo, creating the effect of a foreground and background by using darker and lighter shades of black paint. The background was painted lighter, the foreground darker. While he painted, another man explained about the different kinds of brushes and inks painters use, the different techniques they employ. I always love watching someone paint. I even love watching my Sunday School co-teacher, Diane, draw pictures for our class of five-year-olds. I am always in awe of talent which I know I will never possess. I just love watching something come from nothing, just a brush and some paint.

Of course when he was done I waited for someone to tell us the painting the master had just painted was “blankety-blank” Yuan, followed by a pregnant silence while the master looked on and we felt compelled to buy the painting. This did not happen, and I began to wonder if they would sell us the painting, I kind of liked it. I kind of thought it would be cool to take home a painting we had watched being created. I also kind of dreaded a kick in the shins from Clay if I opened my big fat mouth, so I kept my thinking to myself. Later, we were escorted through a gallery of paintings done by local artists, and then upstairs we browsed through another gallery of paintings, these for sale, painted by masters and students at the studio we were visiting.

We have been collecting paintings by local artists from different places around the world, and found one we all liked (except Benji, who voted for the bird painting, but it’s a democracy around here and the rest of us liked a different one). The one we chose shows a man standing on a bamboo raft, a couple of cormorants perched beside him, poling down a river, with karst in the background. We have been in that picture. Because the painting could be rolled up like a scroll, we decided to go ahead and get it to mail home. It turns out the one we chose was actually painted by the same man we had watched paint the bamboo picture, which is kind of nice.

So, we left with a painting, just as Clay predicted when we arrived an hour earlier. Our next stop, the Chinese hospital. We pulled up to a building where towels dried on bushes outside, I figured they must be towels used for patients at the hospital. We entered the “clinic”, where posters on the wall explained reflexology (different parts of the feet are connected to different parts of your body, from the lungs to the prostate, and by getting a foot rub you can minister to these parts of the body), cupping (where cups are put on your back and then pulled off, inflicting big hickies along with healing powers), and acupuncture. In the next room, dozens of herbs were floating in glass jars. They reminded me of the heart with heartworms that floated in liquid at the vet’s office we use to take our dogs to when I was a kid. I was always grossed out by that heart in a jar, always a little squeamish about going to the vet.

The “doctor” invited us to try Tai Chi with a master. This time Clay manned the video while the kids and I, and my parents briefly, tried a little Tai Chi. Did I mention that this clinic had no heat? That it was about forty degrees in there? The Tai Chi warmed our blood a little bit. Then the doctor began to explain the different procedures they did at the clinic. Would we care for an hour long foot rub/reflexology treatment? “No, no, the kids . . . too long . . .”

They ushered us into a room anyway, for the next presentation. Or something. This room was warm. Remember how cold it was in the other part of the clinic? This room was full of Lazy Boys, fully reclined, with foot stools. This room seemed heavenly. “You know, a foot rub sounds pretty good . . .” mentioned my mom as we each settled into our own bit of Lazy Boy heaven. “Maybe we could get just a half hour foot rub?” I suggested. “Us too, us too!!!” the kids shrieked. The doctor told us the kids couldn’t do a foot rub, but the four adults were quickly signed up in our weakened state of Lazy Boy luxury. The warmth, the recliner, it was too much. We couldn’t hold out.

We were in for our first taste of reflexology, while the kids looked on. Nate got busy with the camera, videotaping and using the super zoom. Alayna gave us dirty looks, she wanted a foot rub. Benji, hovered, watching everything carefully. Four young massage therapists came in, the lone boy heaving a big bucket full of greenish brown liquid. I felt Mom tense beside me. What was this? “First, you will soak your feet in tea,” declared the doctor, who then left us with our four reflexologists. Ooookay. We each had our own little foot bath and we dipped our freezing feet into them and sighed in relief. Actually, my toes couldn’t handle the heat and I kept them above water until my boy (everyone else got girls) insisted I “relax” and pushed my toes under. Ouch! They burned for about a minute before they finally got used to the new and unusual temperature.

They rubbed lotion, pounded, poked and stroked our feet. “Relax” was a common reminder from my guy. Clay endured some major tickling, but was able to enjoy it regardless. Mom got a silly grin on her face and just laid back and enjoyed it all, throwing caution and anti-Chinese medicine concerns to the wind. Dad was on the end, I think he fell asleep a little bit. Benji was kind enough to mention that I “have a lot of jiggle on the back of my legs”, which caused me to explain that I was just relaxed, that if I tensed my legs they would hardly jiggle at all. “Relax,” my guy said again, so I had to just let my legs jiggle and endure Benji’s giggles. The jiggle giggle.

It felt mostly good for thirty minutes. It hurt my dad and me when they rubbed a certain part of our left feet, the same place. I guess we’re wired the same way. The kids did pretty well for thirty minutes, but they were a little antsy by the end of it all. So was I, I had trouble relaxing for thirty minutes, letting my calves jiggle. The doctor came in at one point and asked if we had any medical issues we’d like to discuss. We mentioned Alayna’s allergies and were shown their recommended treatment: a mixture of herbs that she would take twice a day, ten pills at a time. TEN! That’s twenty pills a day of some unknown dried herb concoction. We decided this was a little excessive and passed. My dad mentioned his neck pains, and was shown some cream and pills which they suggested he try. He ended up buying the cream, passing on the rest.

The reflexologists finished up by giving us one last calf pat-down, cupping their hands to make a hollow sound each time they hit our calves. When they all did it together on all four of us, it sounded like thunderous applause and we replied with applause of our own, for our new foot rubbing friends. As they used towels to wipe our legs down, I was reminded of the towels drying on the bushes outside. I would bet our towels would be drying out there shortly. I wondered how Clay’s ingrown toenail would be after soaking in tea. I wondered if my mom’s fears about indulging in Chinese medicine, however external it may be, would be realized. I wondered if my calves jiggled as much last July when I was running every day, working off nervous energy as the trip approached.

The reflexology concluded our Guilin trip, we had an uneventful transfer to the airport where we bid John goodbye. While we waited for our plane, we  divided up some Snickers and ate a few glutinous rice balls, which have a consistency of Elmer’s glue and look like eyeballs floating in water. Of the twenty rice balls, Clay ate about seven and there were at least ten still bobbing around in the bowl when we left. This counted for dinner, combined with the snack the plane served. The airplane meal consisted of a bun full of sweet bean paste, some sugar coated nuts, an orange-flavored cake, sweet banana chips, and a Dove bar. So basically we had dessert for dinner. That’s always a good thing.