(This is a compilation of the e-mails I sent from China during my trip)

Oct 19, 2007

I've finally gotten on the internet after more than a week. It's been hard to find a cafe, and we've been quite busy with activities I didn't want to miss: tai chi practice, buddhist study, calligraphy and painting, visit to olympic training center for martial arts, etc. I'm now at Sim's Cozy Guesthouse around the corner from the temple where we're staying, kindof a backpacker hangout, very friendly.

It's been a little rainy here, and always overcast (or smoggy), which is kindof depressing. Chengdu is an amazing beehive of activity, with the most amazing traffic I've ever seen. A taxi ride is a thrill ride, and crossing a major street is very scary; I get shoulder to shoulder with a local and follow their every move. The people are very friendly, and curious. They work so hard for so little, but they're happy because it's so much better than it's ever been.

We've worked with some amazing tai chi artists, even small women who can throw us around at will. My skills are improving but I'm not going to reach that level in this lifetime. Through Lily's connections we have worked with the head Buddhist monk, head Taoist monk, and tai chi master, artist and doctor who are among the best in China, a real privilege.

We had tai chi suits made. Wait til you see me, I look like the real thing!

Food has been great, they put so much on the table, and it's so good, it's hard to stop eating.

Oct 25, 2007

We left Chengdu two days ago for a 12 hour bus ride to Jiuzhaigou valley. A pretty tedious trip on a tight bus, but we did see a lot of Chinese countryside. It's nice to be up here in the mountains where the air is clear and you can see the sun. We all went into the park yesterday, it was beautiful but frustrating because of group inefficiencies and zillions of tourists. I am going back today on my own and will try to avoid the (other) tourists. I am still healthy but experiencing a touch of the 'turista'. Last night we went to the Tibetan Culture show, an incredible Vegas style review with dancers in amazing costumes. It was so over the top it was fun. Then we came back to our hotel where I amused everyone by joining in the folk dancing. I am rooming here with Lily's nephew, Shao Yu; he speaks some english and is very nice.

Tomorrow we will fly back to Chengdu, next day the group will head home and I will fly to Guilin, a large city in the south, but will try to get immediately to Yangshuo, a small town, and hang out there for a few days.

Oct 27, 2007

After one plane ride, two busses and a taxi, I am now ensconced in the Fawlty Towers Hotel in Yangshuo, a small (300,000) town south of Guilin, for $7/night. I'd planned to stay at Lisa's Cafe, as mentioned in Lonely Planet, but a pleasant woman convinced me that this was quieter, cheaper, and closer, and she was right.

Yangshuo is a vacation town, kindof like Barra at Christmas time magnified about 10 times, mostly Chinese tourists but a fair number of well-heeled westerners and a sprinkling of young backpacker types (I guess I am an 'old' backpacker type). There are an incredible number of shops and vendors, matched by an incredible number of tourists. After a dozen approaches, I finally decided it was better to just go ahead and have my shoes polished for $1.25 than to keep warding them off.

Chinese beer is kindof like Mexican beer, but I stumbled onto a beer garden that brews its own dark beer, which was pretty good. While there I was joined by a rotating series of Chinese university students who had an assignment to practice their English, 8 or 10 in all, including a lovely young woman who had to be dragged away by her classmates, fortunately for all concerned ;>). So at least for the first night I haven't been lonesome.

I was picturing something quite a bit more laid back, but I will probably stay here for a few days to decompress - our trip has been pretty non-stop, though wonderful, up til now. Then I will try to find the small village we visited in 1999. That's about the extent of my plans, just following my nose. So far, so good.

Oct 28, 2007

Hello again from Yangshuo. Today one of the local tour guides, a middle-aged Chinese woman, ‘Esther’, offered to take me on a bike tour, $12.50 for 5 hours, pointing out however that I could give her more if I was really pleased, which I was, so I did. She took me on back roads and paths through the rice paddies and small farming villages, wading across a river, stuff I never would have found on my own. Then we went to Moon Hill, where I climbed 1200 steps to the top. As I started, an old lady with a cooler offered me water or pop. Since I already had some water, I declined, but, undeterred, she continued to climb with me, fanning me as we went. Eventually I figured out that she was hoping to sell me a cold drink at the top, and was gambling 1200 steps for the chance. She's 71, and is lovely, and she had a cold beer in the cooler, which was great at the top, and her gamble paid off very well. On the way down she took my hand to steady me.

It would be theoretically possible to live very cheaply here. Tonight I had a large bowl of noodles with peanuts and veggies for dinner, $.39. A glass of Jameson Irish whiskey is $3.00. What more does one need? Well, Guiness of course. Imagine my delight at seeing it on a menu, and my disappointment at receiving Hamms Dark, which the server described as 'the local version of Guiness'.

The rub is that it would require a heart of stone to resist the local vendors. They are friendly and persistent and lovely and needy, and after awhile it just seems better to give them the $2 or $5 or whatever, it is much more important to them than to me. So I am spending more on trinkets than on essentials, but it's been fun, and I now have a sort of relationship with 8 or 10 vendors after our contests of wills.

Tomorrow I may take a river trip on a bamboo raft, then I am going to get out of this town and head for the mountain village I visited in 1999, which I have found on the map.

Oct 30, 2007

It's Tuesday morning here, I'm leaving Yangshou shortly for the mountains (Longsheng town, then Heping villiage). Had another nice day with Esther yesterday, we bicycled back roads with NO other tourists, and took a bamboo raft down the river. I met a Dutch man and an Irishman in town, so had some good English conversation.

I felt so melancholy last night: all these lovely, smiling, hopeful people, 'buy my bananas, oranges, postcards, wreaths, trinkets, shine your shoes?'. Impossible to help them all. I think the word is out on me as a soft touch, the old ladies won't give up until I buy another wreath from them, even if I already have a couple. They are so warm in their gratitude that it's well worth it for $1.30.

Oct 31, 2007

I travelled from Yangshuo to Longsheng yesterday. This seems like a working-class town, no tourist orientation, not much English here. I haven't seen any other Westerners, nor many overfed Chinese in business suits. I get a lot of stares, but many turn into smiles with a "Ni hao!" (hello).

There is an incredible street market, with live chickens, ducks, rabbits, frogs, fish, all kinds of fruits and nuts and seeds and vegetables. There are some very nice small wooden boats that are used to ferry a few people across the river; in the background looms a half-completed bridge that will put them out of business.

Today I will try to get to HePingXiao, the village I visited in 1999. Apparently this area has become pretty touristy since then. I hope this village still bears some resemblance to what I remember.

Nov 4, 2007

I've been out-of-touch for a few days while in the small village Jin Zhu; no internet there. I'm now back in Yangshuo for a few days before flying to Beijing. Feeling a little under the weather today, so taking it easy.

I haven't got the Chinese local transportation system figured out yet, except that it is benign, in the sense that, while you may get hustled, no-one is trying to rip you off, and if you screw up, the solution is usually handy and cheap. For example, I mis-interpreted the name of the village I was seeking, and wound up at a crossroads with no clear idea of where to go next. There were a few lunch shops there, so I showed my pictures around, one young lady took an interest, figured out where I was trying to go, showed me on the map, then recruited a motorcycle driver to take me there for 20 yuan ($2.60), backpack and all, no helmets of course (I, who won't ride my bike without one).

Upon arrival I was assaulted by the usual flock of old ladies with postcards, but managed to show my pictures, and everyone got excited and said something like 'duo la', which wasn't her name, but by the time the feeding frenzy had died down, they came running up with my friend from 1999, Yan Jiu; she remembered me and was happy to see me. There is now a guest-house in the village so I spent three nights there, had a very nice visit.

I hired Yan Jiu as a guide the next day for a hike through the terraces, we went up, up, up, up stone staircases to villages without motorized access, everything had to be carried up (maybe horses). We walked about three hours, I kept up, and she said I had good legs (of course, all the girls say that!). She weighs about 100 pounds, not an ounce of fat on her, she took the climb like walking down the street. Of course, her home in the village is up a trail about as steep and 4 or 5 times as long as Salmon Beach. That night she had me to dinner at her house, along with the others from 1999. It was not my kind of food but I did my best; the wasp grubs were particularly good. There was lots of beer. It was a very nice time, despite the limited conversational opportunities. I was happy to see that the younger people had not migrated to the city.

This whole area is now a state park, with an entrance station at the village, administered, of course, by outsiders, who do not seem very connected to the village people. They were holding English classes each afternoon, so I was recruited as an instructor, it was a lot of fun, the students were very enthusiastic, and they invited me to dinner, even had some good vegetarian fare cooked up.

Got an email from my Beijing friend, he will not be able to meet my there due to business obligations, disappointing, but he has arranged a hotel and someone to meet me. Until then I think I will just hang out here in YS; I have made a few friends, and have relationships with most of the street-vendors; a lot of people speak some English, it's pretty comfortable. The weather a little cool, and overcast. It's hard to find the sun in China!

Nov 9, 2007

I spent a few pleasant days back in Yangshuo at the end of my trip. I figured out that 90% of the tourists stay on the main tourist street, so I frequented the side streets or got out of the tourist area altogether. There are lots of small bars/cafes, very competetive. If you show any interest at all, someone comes out and tries to drag you in. In this way I found a small place that had Jamesons for $2.60/shot. I would sit there in the evenings, sipping my whiskey and watching the people. A young waitress named Willow, out of boredom, friendliness, curiosity, or the desire for a tip, spent a lot of time visiting with me. She had taught herself English and spoke it quite well, so I learned a lot about Chinese life. One evening an old, bent-over lady came by asking for a handout. I have a hard time resisting the old ladies, so I opened my wallet and gave her the smallest bill I had, 20 yuan, about $2.60. It didn't seem excessive, but the waitresses were aghast: 'You gave her 20 yuan!'. They then explained that they made only 25 yuan for their 11-hour shifts. It gave me a better perspective on the economy. Some of the vendors that I was feeling sorry for were probably making out pretty well.

I also met a university graduate who had just quit his job in Guangzhou; this was a pretty bold move since China is now graduating more people from university than it can employ. He'd been making about $400/month as a manager with Coach Handbags. I'd never heard of them, but later I saw some at the airport: $300 for a small fabric bag. Who buys this stuff? Rico had come to YS for some R&R and to improve his English. He observed me bargaining for some T-shirts and said I got a pretty fair price. But he said the shoeshine I paid 10 yuan for would have cost a Chinese 2 yuan.

On my last day in YS I took another bike tour with Esther, this time accompanied by Willow and her sister Dilly and a young American guy. We went south along the Li River, very pretty, again through small villages, then took a ferry (African Queen) across to the town of Fuli, famous for its local artists. Here we had lunch at a covered market, then back. We saw a lot of water buffalo in this area. The farmers work small rice fields in much the same way they must have been doing for hundreds/thousands of years.

Next morning I took a 6am taxi from YS to the Guilin airport, figuring it would be just as cheap as a hotel for the night in Guilin. The driver spoke no English, but I tried to confirm our destination. South of Guilin, he took off west along a highway, then turned south, then west, and continued to twist and turn through back roads for 45 minutes. By then I was convinced that he had misunderstood and we were headed somewhere else, but there didn't seem to be much I could do about it at that point. Time for 'namo ami tuo fo'. Then we passed a few farm carts and suddenly there was the airport, right on schedule. Gotta have faith!

My Beijing friend was in another city and couldn't meet me, so he substituted a delightful young woman named 'Chi-chi' from his company. We went to lunch and dinner, had my favorite foods (noodles, veggie dumplings) and walked around Beijing; a nice way to end my trip.

The flight home was uneventful, just tedious. It's one of those deals where you arrive before you left (leave BJ Nov 8 at 4:30pm, arrive SEA Nov 8 at 3:00pm). So I slept tonight in my own bed, at least for awhile. My body clock is still on BJ time, so I am up typing this.

I hope you have enjoyed these emails; at least you tolerated them, as no-one demanded to be taken off the list. It was a very nice trip for me. I learned a lot (tai chi, buddhism, taoism, calligraphy), saw a side of China that I was interested in (village life), saw some old friends, and made some new ones. And tried to defuse, in a small way, some of the tension our government seems determined to create with China.

(And for the first time - I think it's safe to say this now - I didn't get sick; my system must be getting used to those Chinese bugs).