Wednesday, 6 February 2008

This morning we woke up at 5:15am so we could be ready to leave at 6:30 to head to Kunming. It’s a five hour drive, and we weren’t sure what the traffic would be like on the way since it’s Chinese New Year’s Eve. We dropped off Jane, who had bought yo-yo’s for the boys as a parting gift. We were on our own with our driver, the one who doesn’t speak much English. There wasn’t much traffic at all as we drove along the dark streets. It stays dark very late in this area of China because China does not have any time zones, so it’s always the same time no matter where you are. But China is huge, so in the Western regions it doesn’t get light until around 8:30 or 9 in the morning.

The drive to Kunming, once the sun rose, was kind of depressing. We passed through many factory type towns, thin smoke towers punctuating the skyline and spitting out pollution. We did see some terraced fields, but the closer to Kunming we got, the more hazy it became. Once in Kunming we went straight to the airport, for a one hour flight to Guilin. Actually, we didn’t go straight to the airport, our driver got lost several times and finally had to pay a guy to get us there, we followed his white van through some pretty dingy short cuts.

All businesses were closed in Kunming, metal doors rolled down across entrances all along both sides of the street. The only places that were still open were firework stands, we passed evidence of popped firecrackers, red shreds like confetti, on all the sidewalks. Everyone we saw walking along the street was dressed in nice clothes, all prettied up for the holiday, and bedspreads and tablecloths hung from laundry lines. Getting everything clean for the New Year. At one point, about twelve people, holding a bright silk dragon above their heads, crossed the street, on their way to some sort of performance. I’m sure people here feel the way I do on Christmas Eve, bursting with anticipation and excitement. We looked forward to what we might see that evening.

After the short flight to Guilin, we met “John”, our guide for the next four days. He was very chatty and filled us in on the area as we drove to our hotel. He told us about the fishermen in the area who use cormorants to help them fish. They tie a rope around the neck of male cormorants, so that big fish can’t go down their throats, then they put a lone female out in the middle of the river. All the males want to catch her fish to woo her, so they set out, and when they catch that big fish the fishermen take it, so the males try to catch another one. A little cruel, but pretty effective, and no more cruel than the people we passed on motorcycles with live chickens dangling from one leg, tied on to the back of their motorcycles. When you got to eat, you got to eat.

We talked about New Year’s since this was the eve of the big day. John said that around 5pm the first round of fireworks would go off, before the big meal is served. Then at midnight, the full fury of the fireworks would be upon us, warding off evil spirits from the New Year. Millions of people travel from cities to the countryside during the New Year holiday to celebrate with family. We’re staying in the countryside for the next few days, so John said to expect people to be setting firecrackers off like crazy all around us. It is a sort of contest, to see who could make the biggest racket. Steve Yachtman, you would love it!

We got to the hotel, a mountain retreat, in time for dinner. I had envisioned a place with a large fireplace and friendly inhabitants where we could cozy up to a fire and play cards in the afternoons while the cold stayed outside where it belonged. Our hotel did have a fireplace, but it wasn’t entirely what I had hoped it would be. I’ll start with the good. The food was some of the best we’ve had in China, rivaling the dumplings and home cooked meal back in Beijing. For dinner we had braised pumpkin, sizzling beef, pineapple chicken, sweet and sour pork, spring rolls, spicy fried rice, and stir-fried veggies that were hot and crispy.

While we were eating two families came tromping in, all cold and rosy-cheeked, returning from a biking excursion that took four hours, including a bamboo boat ride. One of the mothers was so excited, she showed me a picture she’d taken on her camera of her husband and daughter going over a small waterfall in the raft. I was feeling a little weak and weenie, their kids were maybe four and six years old, and they were undaunted by the cold bike road on the dangerous highway (John had warned us about the bike ride and we had already opted to rule it out). Undaunted by the cold, in their cute Hannah Anderson clothes. They looked like they were probably from Scandinavia somewhere, used to the cold. Their kids rode on the back of their bikes, our older two would be on their own bikes and it just wouldn’t be responsible to do that bike ride. That’s what I was telling myself as I admired that adventurous family.

Another good thing about our hotel is the beautiful scenery, the rooms have huge picture windows that look onto a river and karst upon karst rising into the distance. Karsts are those huge limestone rock formations, the same as the ones we saw back in Halong Bay in Vietnam but these are on ground, not the sea. It is a dreamy landscape where each karst can look like animals or castles or giant ant hills, depending on your imagination. It is the first thing we’ll see when we wake in the morning, still hazy from dreams. This place is high in Fung Shui, where water and mountains are important to the whole aura of a place. The river is a gentle thing, where bamboo rafts pole along and women hang their laundry to dry.

There are not many of us in the hotel, this is a small-ish sort of place, the perfect size to get to know each other around that roaring fire. Lots of couches and chairs and cushions, with blocks for kids to play with and a steaming tea pot for the asking.

The rooms are pretty, with wood floors and ceilings, and snuggly slippers knitted by people in a nearby fishing village. They have a little note on them that says “Take Me Home”, it reminds me of the note attached to Paddington in the railway station. Clay picked up this little tag and held it to his chest, giving me a pitiful look. “Why?” you may ask, after all these good things. The hotel is not all good.

The biggest con: I left the shower handle turned to hot water for fifteen minutes and nothing came out, no water at all. There was a note that explained that we may need to let to the water run for a while before we got hot water, but after fifteen minutes we were resigned to the fact that there was no hot water. We started calculating how long we could go with no showers. Clay and I, in addition to no hot water, also have very little heat in our room. This place was meant for summer travelers, I think. The heater is temperamental, our room is a cozy 45 degrees. Showers are out of the question.

Con number two we are getting used to, we can’t flush the toilet paper. The bathrooms have a weird set-up, between the toilet and the sink is the shower, with a drain on the floor below it. If for some reason we decided to take a shower, the water would squirt over the entire bathroom, there is no tub or shower stall. It looks like that won’t be an issue for us. There is also a window between the bedroom and bathroom. I think it’s so the dry inhabitants in the room can laugh at the freezing, showering person. I pulled the drapes across the window, I like a little privacy in my bathroom, thank you very much.

Con number three, and I recognize this is not the hotel’s fault, but the hotel doesn’t help, Clay has an ingrown toenail. He googled on his phone and discovered what to do about it, the first suggestion was to soak it in warm water to soften the skin. This is a little difficult since we have no warm water and no bathtub, but we do have a kettle. Clay heated up some water and put it in the sink, then did a little balancing act to soak his foot for awhile. Then he started digging. Clay will be a kung fu toe man, able to withstand great pain in his big toe, by the time he gets done with it. He went after that nail with a pocket knife to peel back the skin and lift up the nail, clipping spikes that were digging into his skin. I informed him that normally people get shots in their foot to deaden the pain before the doctor does what he’s doing, I thought his feats of self-doctoring were quite impressive. He only screamed a little bit.

That night we shot off some fireworks in the parking lot of the hotel, sparklers and poppers. These poppers were not the tame “bubble wrap” poppers we had back in Dali, they had to be lit first and they each made three of four pops, hopping across the parking lot erratically. The kids loved them, I kept my distance. Benji was tired after waking up at 5:30 and traveling all day, he asked, “When can I go to bed?” Anytime one of our kids asks to go to bed, it’s time for bed, so I took him up. The others followed shortly after, and we promised we’d wake them up at midnight for the big firework extravaganza.

I pulled on my long underwear and slipped between the frigid covers, staying as still as my shivering body would let me until my little nest got warm. At midnight I woke up, clutching Clay from beneath him somehow, my fingers digging into his arms. He was yelling, “It’s okay! It’s okay!” It was the first moments of the new year and fireworks were exploding right under our balcony, and all across the countryside. All 1.3 billion people in China were setting off firecrackers at the same time. The ones up close sounded like gunshots, but the ones in the distance rumbled and melded into a “rain on a tin roof” kind of sound. Clay opened the door and walked out on the balcony, the smell of gunpowder hung in the air. I pulled open the curtains and watched from my warm nest, we saw a few colorful bursts in the sky but it was mostly just the firecrackers that make noise. Clay went to wake up the kids, but they weren’t so enthusiastic to see them when they heard there were no big bursts in the sky. They rolled over, Clay came back to bed, and we fell back asleep to the sound of rain on a tin roof.


Thursday, 7 February 2008

When we woke up this morning we were sitting in bed when we noticed a small bird land on the railing of our balcony. It began to sing, its little beak opening and closing and its throat warbling. Just yesterday Benji asked “How can birds whistle without lips?” It had a camping sort of feel, watching a bird from our bed, watching our breath in the air.

I decided I had to tough it out and wash my hair that morning. How bad could it be? I had forced the boys into taking a shower the previous evening before dinner, they had already gone three nights without a shower, and I was kicking myself for not doing it before we left. If we’d only known about the lack of hot water, we all would have thoroughly cleaned ourselves before we left Dali. The boys had not been happy about their shower, even though their room had a teeny tiny bit of warm water dribbling from the spigot. I held the bathroom door shut and told them they couldn’t come out and get dry and dressed until they showered. They weren’t happy, but they did it. So maybe I decided to wash my hair out of the tiniest bit of guilt. If I made them do it, I should do it, too.

There was not a drop of warm water when I tried their shower. I was reminded of a woman we passed yesterday as we drove to our mountain retreat. She was sitting on some steps outside a store, bending over and washing her hair in a bucket of water. A man came by, maybe her son, and squirted some foam on her head, which she began to massage into her scalp. There she was, walking around in designer jeans and a pretty red sweater, washing her hair for the whole world to see. An intimate moment on main street. I remember thinking how cold she must be, especially her fingers. I thought of her now, as I bent over and tried to remember exactly how she washed her hair without getting the rest of her body wet.

For breakfast we feasted on yogurt with muesli sprinkled on top, banana pancakes and French toast and Spam ham and scrambled eggs. No buffet here, it seemed a more intimate breakfast when everyone got to choose what he wanted to eat, and people didn’t keep popping up to get “one more thing” from the buffet. Fresh squeezed orange juice and hot tea were enjoyed by all. I was feeling especially refreshed after my bitterly cold hair washing, and it was so nice to start a little later in the day.

At 10:45 a woman came knocking on our door to tell us it was time for the dragon dance. We all rushed downstairs, yanking on our gloves and jackets. This, in my mind, was the ultimate Chinese experience. A dragon dance on New Year’s Day in rural China. I came out just as the two dragons were approaching, each one made up of two people. The person in back stayed bent over for almost the entire dance, how they’re back must ache! The person in front held a bar that controlled the head and they jumped and knelt and did all sorts of acrobatics, even jumping up on the person behind them so it looked like the dragon was rearing up on its hind legs.

The dance lasted over half an hour, and while the dragons danced a man continued to light round after round of firecrackers, using his cigarette as a lighter. He’d throw them on the ground as soon as they were lit, and each round set off twenty or thirty explosions. Several men played instruments, a drum and cymbal keeping beat for the dragons. The dragons were creative, sometimes the dancers would lie on their side and the dragon would roll over and over, right to our feet. We’d all jump out of the way and scream, then the dragon would leap up and dance back to its partner. At one point the dragons got up on their hind legs, a man that had been playing a drum jumped on its back and retrieved a bag of cabbage that was hung from the second story balcony. A gift to the dragons to ensure a happy New Year.

We were lucky to see this performance, John told us sometimes a village will go three or four years between doing a dragon dance. We clapped and laughed right along with the Chinese women who worked at the lodge, it was a really cool experience. When they were done, the dancers ripped off the dragon costume, their chests heaving. One man was entirely soaked through with sweat, while we were all bundled up in our two jackets, long sleeve shirts and long underwear. It’s hard work, being a dragon. John met us as the dance was going on, and when it was done he explained to us some of the symbolism of what we had seen. Several of the hotel guests listened in, it made me appreciate having these guides. We get so much more out of the experience when we know what it is we’re looking at.

We started out hiking to the top of a karst mountain they call Moon Hill. At the top of the karst is a huge arch of rock, and from different angles it looks like different phases of the moon. There were 819 stone steps to climb to reach the top, but the view would be pretty amazing. As we gathered at the bottom to begin our ascent, we were joined by six Chinese women, each with a cooler slung over her shoulder and a jingling purse full of all sorts of souvenirs, I imagined. They didn’t say much, didn’t try and sell us anything, just smiled and began to climb when we did. Their ages ranged from about 30 to over 60, they chatted amongst themselves just like my aunts do back home, and I imagined on this New Year’s day they were telling favorite family stories or talking about the past year. They were friendly, asked our names, the kids’ ages, where we were from, that was about the extent of their English language skills. Mom and Dad were troopers, they took a rest along the way but we all made it to the top, along with our “sherpas”, as Clay called them. I preferred the term “entourage”.

We admired the scenery, we couldn’t see far since the day wasn’t clear, but it was still beautiful. The term “misty and mysterious” comes to mind. The entourage was still pleasantly quiet, talking amongst themselves and smiling when they caught our eye. Two of the women had stayed behind when Mom and Dad stopped to rest, Mom told us they encouraged her to keep going, giving her the thumbs up sign and telling her she was “almost there” (John interpreted). We’ve been accosted by countless people trying to sell us things. These women weren’t pushy, but clearly wanted to sell us a drink or souvenir. We decided to buy one Coke from each one, all six of them got a sale. We paid too much but didn’t mind. We took a few pictures, then started back down with our entourage in tow. At the bottom they brought out their purse contents with postcards and little wooden ducks and jewelry, but when we said “no thanks” they just smiled and moved off.

We went into the nearby town of Yangshuo for lunch, a commercial little place with a pedestrian street lined with stores. Lots of people were out for a stroll, enjoying their holiday. When we walked into the restaurant all the waiters and cooks were playing a loud game of cards, drinking and laughing and smoking. The chef had a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, ash dangling precariously from the end. As we sat down at a table they broke up their game and the chef with the cigarette headed back to the kitchen. Our food came out ash free and was a huge New Year’s feast, they brought at least eight courses out and we were all stuffed.

That afternoon we headed back to the hotel in time to laze by the fire a while before dinner. We put in a movie, Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, and spent a cozy few hours just relaxing and trying to get warm again. We talked to a few of the other guests, everyone is European but living either in Shanghai or Hong Kong, relocated because of their jobs. One family was from Belgium, one from England, one lovey-dovey couple with no kids had met in Hong Kong. He was from Italy, she was from Portugal. In one of the families the mom was from Holland and the dad was from England, but born in Spain, and they had adopted kids from Peru and Bolivia. It was quite the multi-cultural group, and their kids, all of them younger than ours, ran amuck with blocks and books, climbing all over the furniture. It was a nice place to be.

We finished off our day with a bottle of wine and some warm tea. While there is no drinking age in China, the kids stuck to water that night. We crawled back into those frigid sheets, trying the water one more time, hoping against hope that the water may have somehow turned warm, but alas, it was not to be. We made our little nests and hunkered down for the night.


Friday, 8 February 2008

This morning when we were brushing our teeth, I tried the hot water and lo and behold, it was hot! Not just barely warm, but steam-up-the-bathroom hot. You don’t realize how much you take hot water for granted until you don’t have it. I took a one minute shower, fearful it would turn off at any minute, Clay dropped everything he was doing and raced into the bathroom to shave and take a shower, too.

Clay has been digging into his toe several times a day, equipped with Neosporin, Nate’s Swiss army knife, and clippers. It’s horribly painful, I don’t like to be present when he’s digging at that ingrown toenail. He keeps going lower and finding more, his Kung Fu aura is becoming quite impressive. I’m looking forward to being able to balance him on a spear point by his big toe.

Yesterday, we voiced our concerns to John about the next destination, which we’ll be visiting on Saturday. The accommodations in Ping An were listed as “basic but comfortable”. If they were any more basic than sporadic hot water and minimal heat, we didn’t want them. John promised to make some phone calls and check on it for us, and this morning he met us with bad news. One of the transformers in Ping An had been destroyed in the recent ice storm, there would be no heat or hot water. We were armed with a plan, we had already looked up a hotel in the nearby town of Guilin, so John called and got us some rooms. We all began looking forward to anticipation to our one night in Guilin, where we would soak in warm tubs, crank the heaters, and flush paper down the potty just for fun. Bliss.

That morning we took that same bamboo raft ride the brave family had taken the night before. We were greeted at the rafting place by a group of pushy ladies shouting, “hello, hello, hello” to get our attention, then shoving post cards and wooden ducks in our face. They were exploiting a cute little girl, maybe five-years-old, teaching her to say “Hello, five Yuan, hello”. I didn’t buy from the cute little thing, patting her head and telling her she was very sweet and cute. I hate when they do that to their kids. We boarded our rafts two by two, Mamaw was a little nervous and she gripped her chair beside stoic Papa, who seemed a little nervous himself. I rode beside Benji, Clay rode beside Alayna, and Nate rode with our guide, John.

The ride started off exciting, as we each dropped down a small waterfall, the end of the bamboo raft dipping under the water, swamping the thick bamboo poles. We leaned back in our chairs and lifted our legs while the water drained back into the river. I turned around in time to see Mamaw and Papa make the big splash, they stayed high and dry on their raft and after that I think the nerves were a little soothed. The ride was a gentle one, as we glided past karsts. We passed five different floating “stores”, trying to sell beer and fish on a stick. This was fish that had been grilled, skin and head included, skewered on a wooden stick for your snacking pleasure. Each time as we passed they shouted “Hello, hello, hello!” at us, trying to get our attention and our money.

We did find a very enterprising business at the base of another waterfall. Some men had cameras and took your picture as you approached and went over the falls, similar to the pictures they take at Six Flags when you go down the hill on the roller coaster. These men also had a generator, two computers, a printer, and a laminator, all on a platform in the middle of a river in rural China. Our rafts were docked and we got to see each picture on their computer, choosing the ones we liked, which were printed and then laminated. There were eleven men hanging around, while only a few actually did the work. The men smoked cigarettes and tried to look important and enterprising. In just a few minutes time we were on our way with high quality, laminated pictures of our bamboo raft trip. That’s a much better way to make a buck than shoving postcards in your face and shouting “hello, hello!”

The men pushing us along used long bamboo poles, which they dipped into the water, pushing off once the pole hit the bottom of the river. We wouldn’t drown if we fell off our rafts, the water was too shallow. We might freeze from hypothermia, but we wouldn’t drown. As we were floating along, past all the beer and fish stores and the photographers, the water quiet and still, a cell phone rang. One of the raft men reached into his back pocket and pulled out his cell phone. Wherever we’ve been, from the Masaai warriors to rural China, modern technology has found its way to the people, mostly in the form of cell phones.

After disembarking from our rafts, we ate some lunch and then drove to Silver Cave, chock-full of stalactites and stalagmites, shimmering crystal walls and strange formations that looked like peacocks or forest groves. Despite the garish colored lights and the dry ice machine, we were impressed by this huge cave, it took us an hour to walk through it. At some points the ceiling soared three or four stories up, and we came upon a pool that was so still you could look deep into the reflection of the rocks and imagine another whole world down there, if you could just somehow bust through to it.

We were able to make it home early again, and we did a repeat of the previous afternoon. The kids watched a movie called Eight Below while the adults read or worked on their laptops, a conglomeration of people from all over the world cozied up to the fireplace. It was so much nicer than the cold rooms upstairs. We commiserated over the lack of hot water with the other residents, and Clay mentioned we were able to get some earlier that morning. Everyone claimed they would be at our door the next morning, they’d bring their own shampoo. Despite the cold and lack of amenities, we have enjoyed our stay here. It was quiet and peaceful and beautiful, everything a mountain retreat should be.