Saturday, 2 February 2008

Alalalay (Hello) from Lijiang. The morning brought sunshine and blue sky. We had cajoled Sam into a late start time the night before, so we didn’t have to be ready until 10. The kids woke up happy, spreading out their legos on the floor of their room, and I splurged and turned the majority of the laundry into the hotel to be cleaned. The shower had great pressure. Things were looking up! Clay turned on the TV and saw the news about so many stranded travelers in central China, 500,000 people sleeping in the streets outside the train station, on the way home for the New Year on February 7. The streets were just packed, there wasn’t enough food or water for them, they must have been so cold and miserable. My bed didn’t seem so hard anymore, I was thankful for my four walls and the breakfast buffet waiting for us. We were blessed to have an itinerary that steers clear of all these travel woes, I added those 500,000 people to my prayers.

From the breakfast room window we could see the town walking by, we looked out on a main street of Old Town Lijiang. Women with bright clothes and baskets strapped on their backs walked by, men rode bikes with carts attached to the back. It was cold, we wore our coats during breakfast, but the blue sky promised a day of sunshine and warmer temperatures if we gave it some time. Two young boys at the egg station laughed while they fried up my over easy order. When Clay called later to ask about the internet, he hung up puzzled. “Two goofy guys just kept laughing,” he said. I wondered if it was the same two egg boys. We got a call a minute later from the front desk, someone would be right over. Unfortunately, we couldn’t get the internet working, those emails about the upcoming Australia portion of the trip (Clay’s brother and family are joining us), journal updates and other computer work would have to wait.

At 10 we met Sam and walked fifteen minutes through the Old Town to our car. We passed two girls feeding a squirrel in a cage, small canals bordered the streets, a water wheel turned, and shopkeepers began to set out their wares. This town was neat and clean and colorful, it reminded me of many of the small towns we visited back in Europe. The van didn’t seem nearly as small when we boarded without our luggage, we set off into the countryside in search of a Naxi (pronounced “NAH-see”) village.

The Naxi people make up 75% of the population in Lijiang, and they have a very strong culture. They speak their own language, not Mandarin. They have their own religion, not Buddhism or Taoism but a mix of these and the worship of nature as well. A huge mountain loomed on the horizon, snow on the top. Sam explained this was a holy mountain, that people once tried to climb it but they never could reach the summit because it was too steep. Today, people are forbidden to climb it, because the Naxi people worship it.

In the Naxi village we walked along a dirt road, chickens and children played, we stepped into the courtyard of a home. Naxi homes are two story, people live on the first floor and use the second floor for storage. The home surrounds a courtyard, and in this courtyard large, round baskets held tiny little black beads. These were seeds, cabbage seeds. Sam explained that this batch had just been through its first cleaning, some would be planted and the rest would be pressed into vegetable oil. It still seems odd to me, to enter someone else’s home to just check it out, but the people here are used to tourists popping in and out and don’t seem bothered in the least.

The culture among the Naxi is that the women do the majority of the work and the men play cards and plant flowers. A good man will have many flowers in his courtyard. Sure enough, when we visited another village later, we passed several groups of men playing mahjong, Chinese chess, or some sort of lawn bowling game. The women shopped for food, ran souvenir stalls, took care of children, and carried heavy basket loads on their backs. Hmph!

In a museum we entered later, we learned about a different tribe where the women are the matriarchs of the families. Marriage never happens, if a man decided he “loves” a woman, he can visit her and have children with her, but he will forever live with his mother, his children will forever live with their mother, sometimes never even knowing who their father is. This is the way their culture has been for centuries. I just don’t see how that can work for so long, humans are engineered to love, the whole idea of falling in love with someone and having a family with that one person and living with them, wanting to be with them, seems so natural, so right. Perhaps it is a way to protect girls from cruel husbands? Somehow it works for them, this topsy-turvy way of life.

They had pictures in the museum, taken by an Australian scientist who lived in the region for 27 years. There was a picture of a harsh looking woman with her two daughters, this was one of the tribe who never marries, and I wondered how hard her life must be, raising a family on her own. In another picture, a group of naked men were standing, each holding a large, inflated thing on their bellies. Sam explained they were holding sheep bladders, they blew them up and left them to harden for a day, then held them as they crossed the river. There were no bridges and no boats, and they had to find a way across. I couldn’t imagine crossing that river in the cold winter air we’re experiencing. It would be bitter. There was an example of a traditional pillow, it was made of wood, and would have gone nicely with the beds we had back at the hotel.

We headed back to the hotel, spending some time around a beautifully landscaped pool. We passed a man with a long gray beard, sprouting from his chin. By the way, take a close look at our pictures, Clay’s got a goatee going. Look closer. Closer. Yes, there it is, that stubble. He loves to poke the kids’ scalp with it. Sam told us that when men turn sixty, they stop shaving their beards, so the longer the beard, the older the man. Near this pretty pool was a cliff face, and Sam told us that early in the morning, around 5am, the older retired women come out to drink water from the pond and then climb the cliff, singing to each other as they climb. Some of the women are 75 years old, I can imagine after a lifetime of carrying heavy baskets and working in the fields, these women are hearty indeed. They claim that the water in the pond gives longevity. I think climbing cliffs does a lot for long life as well. Late in the day these same women can be seen in the Old Town of Lijiang, dancing with each other in the main square. They seem so happy with life, living it vigorously to their dying day.

For dinner we decided to go American and found ourselves a pizza place. We settled for a cheese and a pepper and olive, forgoing the tuna fish pizza. It was good, we filled our bellies and walked back to the hotel through the lighted up Old Town, red lanterns swinging from the eaves. Along the way we crossed several canals, they were selling candles you could float down the canal on foam flowers and it looked so pretty, seeing the little lights go bobbing down the water. The streets were all cobblestone, no cars or motorcycles to worry about, little children with their rosy red cheeks played in the streets with their grandparents. This is a lovely town.


Sunday, 3 February 2008

Today we took a two and half hour drive to see the Leaping Tiger Gorge. It was a ride punctuated by big mountains and green fields terracing down the steep cliffs. We passed a woman sitting by the side of the road, holding a rabbit by the ears, its back feet dancing on the pavement. I wondered if she was trying to sell it, or if it would be slaughtered later in the day for dinner.

We arrived at the gorge and started on a forty minute walk to reach the actual Tiger Leaping section. On one side of our walking path was a jagged cliff, on the other was nothing. We were fortunate for many reasons. Five years ago they built the path we were walking on, with nice even pavers and a chain on one side to keep you from plummeting to your death. I wished they had put something a little sturdier than chain, especially for Nate’s sake, who hung precariously close to the edge. But, on the other side of the gorge, we could see the previous path, a dangerous dirt path, often blocked by rock slides. We passed many signs urging us to hurry along, no stopping to take pictures, rock slide danger. We were lucky, the rock slides are more frequent during the summer months, when the wind and rain make the hike really treacherous. Sam said eight people died on the path last summer! I think I’d choose to skip the hike if it were me in the summer.

We passed some funny signs, too, Clay took pictures. We’re always cracking up at the bad translations from Chinese to English. Along the way we passed through several tunnels, blasted out of the rock. In some of these, melted wax and black smudges were testimony to past candles. I wondered if they were lit for light, or for worship. We passed one red candle unmelted, and I swiped it and put it in my jacket pocket, to be used as Nate’s birthday candle on Tuesday. Along the way we’ve picked up some presents, and I got a package of Ding Dong-like things in the last city to use as a birthday cake if we find nothing better. Mom informed me she has lots of alcohol to use to clean the candle before it is inserted in Nate’s Ding Dong, probably a good idea. Yesterday, we got a banner written in pictographs, the Naxi are the only culture that still uses pictographs as a written language. It says “Happy Birthday” in Naxi, and tribal elder wrote Nate’s name and the date. A perfect keepsake.

We finally reached the gorge, where a torrent of water rushed far below us, crashing and swirling and moving at a fast pace. This was no “tubing on the Guadalupe” river. This was raging. We admired it, I kept a tight grip on Nate and Benji’s hoods while they hung over the railings that cautioned “do not lean on railings”. Something that looked like a wire coat hanger had been wound around a bit of rebar in the path to attach to the rails that stood between us and death. It did not seem sturdy enough. A statue of a tiger stood on our side, crouched and ready to leap to the other. Legend has it a tiger escaped a hunter by leaping 90 feet across the gorge in a single bound.

As we drove back to Lijiang, we stopped at a different Naxi village and took a walk down the narrow road, just wide enough for a bicycle or small tractor or a family of seven and their tour guide. We’ve noticed lots of little foo-foo dogs in these little villages, they look like some sort of Pekinese or pug, and come running from their faithful posts at the gates to courtyards to investigate us. They are really cute, and seem well cared for and groomed. We entered one courtyard where laundry hung across the center, and two giant hams hung from the second story balcony, alongside an unidentified bone. Across the way another courtyard was festooned with gorgeous vines and flowers. This home must have a faithful male who tends his flowers well.

We got back in the car and made our way back to Lijiang. On the way we hit a traffic jam. We’d been driving on skinny two lane roads that wound around the mountains, so when an accident happens everything stops for a while. As we approached we saw a group of people eating popcorn and smoking, waiting for the police to sort out their mess that lay untouched in the middle of the road. Big tour busses and trucks had no way to make it around the cars that lay crooked across both lanes, our van just barely squeezed by. I wondered how long those busses would be waiting, nobody seemed in any kind of hurry.

We got back to Lijiang, where we picked up some decorations to use for Nate’s birthday. The only decorations we could find were for the New Year’s celebration, red lanterns and cute little cartoon rats (it’s going to be the year of the rat) and little Chinese emperors with big round bellies. We told Nate we were getting them for New Year’s, so hopefully he’ll be surprised when he sees them hanging in his room the morning of his birthday. I plan on sneaking in late at night and hanging them all over.

After getting the decorations we headed back into Old Town, towards the hotel. I have noticed that I keep one eye to the ground at all times when walking in China, watching out for spit globules. The people here spit often, hocking up giant loogies onto the pavement. It’s pretty gross, I’m just waiting for Alayna or Nate or my mom to spit a big one, they’ve all come down with colds due to either pollution or cold, or a combination of the two. Sam spied a tea shop and recommended buying some black tea, it’s supposed to be good for colds.

We found ourselves all seated around a low table, sipping different kinds of tea expertly prepared by a cute young Naxi girl. She explained what was in each kind of tea and what it was used for. She poured hot water into tiny little bowls that we sipped from, sterilizing them and making sure to get rid of any previous residue from different teas we’d tasted. It was like a wine tasting, but with tea. Everyone really liked it, giving their opinion on each one, and it was fun that the kids could participate, too. Benji was the only one that wasn’t very fond of the tea, “It isn’t my favorite,” he’d say. He prefers Coke.

We left with two bags of tea, my parents got some, too. We made one more stop, to buy some strange looking candy being sold by the side of the road. We tried it back at the hotel. It looked kind of like a piece of shredded wheat covered in powdered sugar. When you took a bite, it poofed into the air, and long, skinny white bits that looked like hair hung out of your mouth while you tried to get it all into your mouth. In the middle there were peanuts, it tasted kind of like peanut butter, and it was really fun to eat. I think Clay got some video for your viewing pleasure.

We packed our bags, ready to take off tomorrow morning. We’ll say goodbye to Sam, crunch ourselves and our luggage into that little van, and drive three hours to the next village and the next adventure.