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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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).