Sayonara Kyoto

It’s midnight, & I’m so wired I can hardly think about sleep.

This morning Susie & I slept in a little, & when we got up it was pouring rain.  We had decided to use our last day to the fullest, but the downpour & enjoying our instant cup of coffee while watching the view of the rain falling on the pagoda outside did slow us down a little.

Finally we headed out & had our easy to reach $5 breakfast down the road.  Fortified by another cup of coffee & breakfast, we headed out to tackle the city with our newfound knowledge of the city bus system.

We got on the right bus & went straight to Kinkakuji temple, the site of the golden pavilion, just in time for the bottom to fall out.  Being experienced travelers by now,we just pulled out our ever-present umbrellas & enjoyed the lush green of the maples and the moss.  The pavilion itself sits on, or rather over, a large pond.  The top two floors are coated, inside & out, in gold leaf.  Oddly enough, they won’t let you go inside.  The surroundings of the temple are richest shades of emerald, & jade, & forest greens.  It reminded me of my grandmother… “look at all the beautiful shades of green.” 

We took turns sharing umbrellas with strangers & taking each other’s pictures with our cameras.  Alas, somehow I didn’t get a picture of myself there.

We puttered around in the souvenir shop during the worst of the downpour, & on the way out I stopped for some green tea & vanilla swirled ice cream.  Yum.

Then back on the bus.  I’m an old pro now.

We headed down to a little pedestrian shopping district, but many places were closed.  I didn’t mind though.  The place was deserted compared to Taramachi shopping district, so I was able to meander & look without feeling like I was going to get run over.  You have to watch out for the bike riders though. They can clean you out if you aren’t watching for them.  I looked up once & saw a little boy, maybe five or six, completely covered by a rain slicker peddling with his goulashes on this tiny little bike down the mall.  He hardly looked old enough to know how to ride a bike, but he was smiling ear to ear, obviously proud of himself, as he zigzagged across the entire width of the mall, blissfully unaware that at one point he nearly caused a 3 bicycle pile up & sent a couple of adults careening toward some shop windows. 

I found a place that prepared sushi at the counter & had 8 nice pieces of sushi for about $6.30.  Unfortunately there are few places to sit, & I don’t see Japanese people eating on the go.  Oh well, I’m a tourist, & I don’t know any better.  So I sat down on the wall of the courtyard children’s playground in the center & had myself a little sushi feast.  I ate octopus today & found it quite tasty & not at all boingy liked I’d feared.  The salmon was especially excellent.  I skipped the clam, as it has the consistency of chewing an uncooked tongue.

Then I heard a high-pitched giggle & looked over as bicycle boy was sliding down the slide in the rain into a puddle at the bottom.  He reminded me of my nephews so much – Daniel especially.  Just playing by himself, entirely unselfconsciously giggling & stomping & singing & entertaining himself while his grandmother looked on.  I took some pictures of him twirling his umbrella & stomping & washing his hands in the puddles.  He finally noticed me, & I showed him his picture on my camera.  He looked unimpressed & went back to his puddle. 

We wandered around for a while down the street outside the mall & found nothing of particular interest.  We hopped a bus & headed back into town.  There were three women, in their late 60’s I would guess, all dressed to the nine’s in their immaculate & very expensive kimonos, complete with tied obis and covered with an outer yukata.  Their stockinged feet in wooden clogs & covered with plastic covers to protect them from the rain. Their hair styles were works of art.  Many women, including young women, dress in traditional elaborate kimonos for a nice evening out.  I could hardly stop looking at this group of friends, they were so striking.    

It was still early yet, so we looked for a place to have a quick drink & a sit.  I took us over to where I’d found the Irish pub the night before, & we explored the area.  Found a store with antique silk fabric.  Wow, that was neat.  Unobtainable, but really neat.  I bought a couple of postcards there.

After having exhausted our options on that street we headed back to the Irish pub.  It was, at least, a sure thing & we were ready to take a load off.  A different person greeted us from behind the bar, & the place had a particularly fun & friendly atmosphere this evening.  We ended up meeting some people from Yorkshire & Canada & chatted them up.  Had a few American drinks & a lamb pita that was good.  We checked our emails & sent some home.  It was uncomplicated & familiar, & to be honest, we’re both looking for familiar. 

Susie & I both admitted to each other that our hearts are already back at home, & we aren’t fighting it anymore.  I miss my kids, & Susie’s are coming into town the day after she gets home.  Plus, we were a real sight tonight.  Both of us primping & plucking & powdering like we were getting ready for a first date.  We’re ready to see our guys. 

Packing had its usual challenges.  Susie has a routine every time we’re leaving a city.  She becomes convinced that there was something she bought that she has lost.  She unpacks everything she has in all her bags & spreads it around her like some kind of untidy nest.  She frets & mutters to herself all the way through it.  I used to try & help her find the missing item; then I started encouraging her that it would turn up.  I have since learned that it is part of a ritual I do not understand, & I just assume I am unnecessary to the ongoing discourse.

Now there is nothing left to do but to go to sleep, & as impossible as that seems, I guess I will try it. 

Sayonara Kyoto.


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Hang Fire!

I was able to get the shower working last night after a repeat lesson from the non-English speaking host.  It turns out that Americans cannot understand slow loud Japanese.  This morning I got up & made some coffee with my packets I’d bought at the supermarket.  It was a real treat to be clean & to enjoy coffee relaxing in my own room.  I was reminded of a line from King Lear – something about difficult circumstances making small things seem precious*.  I took my breakfast groceries & walked over to the Memorial to the Unknown Soldier across the street.  While I waited for the place to open I sat on a bench in the breeze & ate my coconut yogurt (or coconut something) & my ham & cheese bun.  Heaven.

The memorial was truly moving.  There is a main shrine building in the front.  Off to the East side of the campus is the memorial for the foreign soldiers.  The words printed on the huge marble memorial are quite moving.  There is a bench with an incense burner, & I lit an incense stick in remembrance of the American lives lost during WWII.  A room off to the side contains drawers of the names of foreign soldiers who lost their lives, and on one wall is a case with jars of dirt donated from the veteran cemeteries around the world. 

Around the rest of the campus are separate memorials for the Japanese soldiers who lost their lives.  There is a different memorial for each region of Japan.  In a larger building there are drawers with the names of all the Japanese soldiers.  Drawers and drawers and drawers.  It was overwhelming.  In each drawer are hundreds of names on individual metal markers.

While I was there this morning there were many old women who came & prayed & lit incense.  I just happened to be at the memorial on a special day.  There are a few days every month when the monks perform a special service in remembrance of the lost lives.  I listened to the monks chant & watched the ceremony.  But the women coming after this many years… it was painful & very emotional to me.

Having soaked up every ounce of that experience I left & walked back across the street to start my trek for the day.  Last night I had pulled out a city map & a bus map & had made some plans.  I decided to take the bus to visit the Imperial Palace way on the North side of the central city.  I was very apprehensive but confident that I couldn’t get in too much trouble with a map to the ryokan & some money for cab fare in my pocket if everything went awry.

I started by walking to the 7-11 & using their international ATM to pull out some money.  I also bought a day pass for the bus system (for only 500 yen – about $5).  Feeling quite confident after those accomplishments, I walked down the street until I saw some people waiting for a bus.  The bus stop listed my bus number.  OK, I could do this.  Take the 206 to Kumano-jinja-mae & then switch to the 204.  Ride the 204 to Maratumachi station & get off at the Imperial Palace complex.  Things were going swimmingly.

I got off at the right spot.  Then a nice woman who spoke some English told me that the 93 also would take me to the complex.  I got on the 93 with her.  She told me where to get off the bus & waved goodbye from the window.  Wow, I felt like such a big girl!  It turns out that the complex is enormous (well duh – it’s the Imperial Palace) & I had about 7 additional blocks to walk to get to the place where they make foreigners register for approval to get in (very proud of myself for finding that out in advance).  7 blocks.  Sigh.  (Did I mention that I was lugging my roll around backpack with my PC, so I could email all you guys at the first opportunity?)  Every now & then I stopped to ask a stranger to look at my map & make sure I was going the right way. FINALLY, I arrived at the correct gate. 

I lugged my backpack across the gravel walkway (not easy on wheels) & made my way down the long path to the guard station… where a very kind & apologetic guard informed me that the Imperial Palace was closed on Saturdays.

Oh good grief. 

The guard must’ve thought I was insane when I burst into peals of laughter.  He gave me some brochures to ease my suffering (or abate my insanity).

So 7 blocks I walked back, & I took refuge in the McDonald’s, where I was able to send out that email to everyone.  An awfully long way to go for Coke & some fries.  At least there was internet access.

I suppose my confidence was shaken.  The ride back went less smoothly.  I caught the 202, got off too soon, caught the 202 again, & probably could’ve ridden it back to my area of town, but I refused to be beaten.  I was going to use the bus system to actually go somewhere.  I got off & caught the 12 (all of these stops involved my going in & asking someone at the Family Mart – a sign I’ve grown to think of fondly – what was the best bus route to take back to the center of town. 

At last, I recognized where I was… though, why did I want to come to the shopping district?  I hate shopping malls in the U.S., & the ones in Little Rock aren’t nearly so crowded.  I fought the crowd for a while, & then sat down with my travel guide in disgust as it started to rain.

Then I saw it: 

The Gael Irish Pub.  Ohto Bldg., west side Nawate, north of Shijo above drug store.  The friendly hospitality of 23-year-Kyoto-veteran, Michael, and his jolly English/French speaking staff make this Lonely Planet’s “favorite Kyoto bar” and “a great place… to see what’s going on.”‘ Relax and make friends at this ‘must-visit’ pub, while enjoying great food and drink; our staff are happy to help you plan your Kyoto stay; fine whiskeys, bottled & draft beers; generous wine glass; lamb kebab; big fish and chips; roast lamp; live music Fri. & 2nd Sun.; major sports on 5 screens; Can’t find us? CALL! FREE INTERNET!

A shelter from the storm.  Go in, hang out with some other “big noses,” lick my wounds, & get a good dose of confidence.  At this point, I looked at a couple of busses that passed & just hailed a cab.

After much discussion & pointing at the guide, the cabbie dropped me off in the area that he thought should have the bar.  One discussion with a drug store clerk, & an elevator ride.  Here I am.

The friendly gentleman who greeted me was most definitely not named Michael.  But he assured me his boss would be right back & could help me with my internet troubles.  I ordered some curried lamb & waited for Michael.

The owner arrived.  His name is most definitely not Michael either.  He also does not seem too eager to “help [me] plan [my] Kyoto stay.”  And, I cannot get my computer to connect to his wireless network.  I had to laugh again.  Ah well.  There is a power outlet here for my ailing PC battery, I know the words to the music that they are playing, & they have Bass on tap.  Thankfully, the 5 screens of sports also turned out to be exaggeration (complete fabrication).

All in all a good day.  I conquered my fear of public transit, got a satisfying meal, & enjoyed a good malty beer & several smokes while typing to my friends back home at the end of the day.

Now… can I just get back to my room…

*The art of our necessities is strange,
 And can make vile things precious.
(King Lear 3.2) 

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Kyoto 2

Our plan had been to get up & eat the breakfast we ordered from the ryokan & then head across the street to see the temple & memorial, but either there was a misunderstanding about breakfast, or we slept too late, because it never arrived.  We wandered down to the place we had dinner the night before & got a $5 breakfast that was pretty good.  At least it included a good cup of coffee, so that was good.

We walked back to the ryokan to change our clothes, as we had mistaken the temperature & dressed too warmly.  Then Susie suggested that we venture out further & leave the temple for another day.  I was disappointed, but I agreed.

We hailed a taxi to take us to an area that had a bit more life, & it wasn’t far actually.  We did a little – very little – shopping.  Things are UNBELIEVABLY expensive here.  These people must have serious incomes around here.  I’m so glad I did all my shopping in China.  Also, the clothing shopping here is just downright demoralizing.  I have serious body image issues after spending so much time in Asia.  Anyway, with prices what they are, I’ll just do a lot of sightseeing & picture-taking here.

We finally found an ATM for me to get some cash.  The only place to do so is at the post office, which is on the 7th floor of a department store.  In China I could pull money out at any Bank of China ATM, which I found even in the most remote cities we visited.

I felt like we did a lot of nonproductive walking today.  I couldn’t afford anything in the shopping center, & I didn’t see a single temple or shrine or historical site.  Susie doesn’t eat sushi.  We went down an alley to try & find a place for me to get sushi, & I ended up at a place that sat on the river.  Then, when I got inside I found out that to sit outside I could only order from a set (& very expensive) menu.  Susie didn’t eat anything, & there were no drinks on the menu she wanted.  I felt uncomfortable eating while she just sat there in watched, but I tried to just enjoy the weather, the view, & the food.  I was mostly successful.  I can say that at this point, Little Rock sushi is measuring up just fine!

After eating we walked all the way back to our ryokan from town.  It was a few miles I suppose, but it didn’t seem too bad.  We stopped by the grocery store, & I bought some things for breakfast & for lunch.  Susie said that she had decided she would let me go to the temple & memorial center on my own in the morning.  We came back to the ryokan, & I sat down outside for a cigarette & then went on a walkabout for a few minutes.  I came back & suggested to Susie that we take a day to do our own thing tomorrow.

American cell phones don’t work here, & this ryokan has no internet access, & I can’t get any info as to where to find any either.  In China I had someone helping me negotiate the area & the culture.  Here I’m just wandering blind.  Between the isolation I feel in this strange city, & the isolation I feel from friends & family with no telephone or internet access, I am suddenly very homesick.  I’m ready to be home.

Maybe after I spend some time finding my own way around tomorrow & seeing some things I want to see I will feel a little better.  I think I will make finding net access &/or a  telephone card part of the equation.  That would certainly help.

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We have arrived in Kyoto.  It was very strange telling our group of 19 goodbye after having spent the last 3 weeks with them.  It was also very scary to embark on a leg of the journey with no liaison or guide to take care of getting us from one place to another.  Once Catherine dropped us off at the check-in counter, we were on our own.

The plane sounded funny, so despite the fact that I’d only had about 3 hours sleep, I stayed awake the entire flight keeping it aloft.  The flight wasn’t crowded so I was able to move to an empty row of seats, & I watched as we descended over the ocean with all of the ships going in & out of the harbor.  Susie slept the whole way.  In fact, she fell asleep on & off all day – every time she got still for just 5 minutes.  I knew that meant that she was really sick, & I gave her every chance to sleep because I knew she would push herself to keep going if she thought she was holding me up.

Anyway, we arrived at Kansai airport, & some quick questions revealed to me that the trip to Kyoto was 2 hours, not 15 minutes.  Oh boy.  We managed to get through immigration & customs in little time; however, my fatigue almost caused a major problem.  After we’d made it through customs & walked through the door of no return I realized I had left my sheets with all my flight, hotel, & everything information on the desk where we had filled out our paperwork.  The Japanese are so proper & polite.  We found a very kind older gentleman who escorted us around through “staff only” doors back to where we’d been, & another young woman helped us look for the papers.  Someone had already thrown them away, but she found them.  Thank goodness.  They all giggled at me when I made heart attack motions.  They are so reserved; I’m sure I was quite a spectacle.

Then onto find the proper train – all this while lugging 2 tons of luggage because we bought half of China while we were there.  The whole thing was very stressful for me.  Finally we were on a spacious & immaculate train & could relax.  I wanted to fall asleep & did for just a little bit, but Susie was so lethargic she couldn’t stay awake, so I kept waking up for fear of missing our stop. 

Then a taxi ride.  I handed the gentleman our address & map.  We have since learned that he took us quite a circuitous route & we paid twice what we would have otherwise.  At last we arrived at our ryokan.

We seem to have the deluxe room in the place.  It is two rooms, straw mats, futons on the floor.  Sliding paper walls & window coverings.  Having the sitting room is very nice.  We looked out one window, & we can see a pagoda.  From our front room we have a view of Kujiami temple.  We decided just to relax & unwind for a while.  By this time we had been traveling for about 10 hours all total.  We both laid down on our futons for a while, & I dozed off.  At 5:00 the gong at the temple sounded & woke me.  Susie stayed fast asleep.  I decided to sneak out & let her sleep.

There are some steps across the narrow little street outside our front window, so I decided to walk up them.  The steps went up & up & up & then suddenly I could see the head of a colossal Buddha – or it might be a Guyan, not sure.  I went walking around the grounds of the temple, though the temple itself was closed.  Attached to the temple is the Japanese memorial for the unknown soldier of WWII!  It was so cool.  Of course I knew Wallace would want to know everything about it, so I’m going back when it’s open.

I came back & got Susie.  She roused herself.  First, I took her to show her my discovery across the street, & then we went walking the streets of our district.  We are truly in the geisha district.  It’s all so mysterious & quiet around here.  Finally we found a place to eat.  I was starving to death.  It wasn’t particularly cheap, but it was very satisfying.  I had curried pork cutlet & rice with a salad & a big tall beer.

We wandered back to our ryokan about 8:00, & the district was all shut up & quiet as a tomb – kinda weird even, especially after being in China where everything is so bustling & noisy & open.

I tried to take a shower when we got back, but I guess I didn’t understand how to work the thing because I only got half wet before it kicked off.  Oh well.  I toweled off & decided I would have to skip a day.

We crashed at the late hour of 9:00 pm & didn’t wake up until 8:30 the next morning.

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Lijiang (Lee Jong) (7,000+ feet)

We were very sad to leave Dali, even though it rained the whole time we were there.  It was so beautiful, and the temperature was wonderful – especially after the heat & humidity of Xi’ An.  Our trip from Dali to Lijiang was by bus, as there are few flights into Lijiang.  It took almost four hours of driving through the mountains.  I had planned to sleep, but I couldn’t stop looking at the breathtaking views (except when I was squeezing my eyes closed as we passed cars in turns with the 9 million foot drop on the other side).  Every time I thought the landscape couldn’t get any more picturesque, we turned a corner & my breath was taken away again.  We drove through cloudbanks when we couldn’t see anything, & then it would clear & reveal some gorgeous valley or farmland or waterfall.  We passed water buffalo and yaks.  I didn’t regret the missed nap one bit.

Very quickly we entered Lijiang (heralded by a huge coffee plantation (HURRAY!  Good Coffee!).  After a very quick lunch (I’m getting a little tired of Chinese food by now), we went straight to the local school.  We met with the administrators & some teachers in the typical forced ceremonial way, & then I & 3 others in the group went with an English teacher to her 7th grade classroom.  We were very surprised to realize that we were sort of expected to take over the class.  First we introduced ourselves, then the teacher asked the students to ask us questions.  Of course, neither of those things stretched out very far, so I decided it was time to adlib.  I just couldn’t stand everyone standing around staring. So I had to think of something fast.  We got the kids on their feet.  I made sure they had learned all of the names of the basic body parts, & I taught them the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees, & Toes.”  We practiced and then did it faster & faster.  The kids had a blast, & the teachers did too I think. 

We headed out to the courtyard after that to watch the kids do their daily dancing exercises (with the Himalayan mountains as a backdrop) & then they had some free play time.  The kids in Lijiang are much more open & relaxed than the kids were in Xi’An.  Boys would rush to talk to me & then get caught up wrestling & making fun of each other.  Boys are boys no matter where they are.

I spent some time talking to the teacher of that class.  Those poor teachers are so overwhelmed.  They have classes of 50-60 students.  They typically teach 10 hour days.  The teacher in Lijiang was very honest about her job & the students.  They have all the same problems we do (behavior, not studying, etc.), plus they have more students.

When we got to our hotel it was a little bit of a letdown after the fabulous place in Dali.  At first it seemed that our view was a wall.  However, we soon found out that we had a backdoor next to the window, & that there was a small courtyard outside our room.  We slept with the window open every night, & it was silent (as opposed to the jackhammering that went on all night long outside our window in Kun Ming).

Our hotel was located in the “new” part of Old Town Lijiang.  The roads are cobblestone & hundreds of years old.  In fact, there was no road at all in Lijiang, except for a horse road, until 30 years ago.  Most of their modernization had happened after the earthquake there in 1991.  So old town is all pedestrian and bicycle traffic.  It’s huge, & though I felt like we were sort of kept in the “tourist quarantine,” there were many many more Chinese people there than tourists, so obviously it’s an integral part of daily life for the majority of Chinese in the area.

In Lijiang there are more Naxi people than Han (what we typically thing of as Chinese).  They have very fine features & don’t look “Chinese” at all.  Also there (and in Dali) are many Tibetan people.  And I’ll just say here that I have never seen a better looking race of men in my life than those Tibetan men.  Heavens.  High cheek bones, chiseled jaws, angular noses, long black hair.  Very Native American.  There is no doubt in my mind that those people are related. 

While I was there the first night I met a Naxi (“Nashie”) girl working in the hotel, who asked me to help her with her English.  Her English name is Star.  I ended up tutoring her for about 1 ½ hours.  I am a teacher, after all, & that’s what the trip is about.  We practiced English phrases she was supposed to learn for the hotel.  She had trouble with R’s and E’s, so I would take words I had learned from Chinese & say them like “shi'” (pronounced “shurr”), & then show her that the pronunciation of something with an R had the same type of mouth & tongue formation.  She also showed me her journal where she had written pages in English.  Her written English was impeccable, but what struck me more were the things she said… “I know my English is not good, but I know that if I work very hard every day to improve, I will be able to serve my guests better and to attend to their needs.”  Almost verbatim. She was so earnest, & her desire to improve her English was all because she was so driven to improve her skills as a hostess in this hotel & to better serve the guests.  She had no other more lofty goals.  It was hard for me to comprehend that level of desire to serve in that capacity.  It’s hard to explain what I mean.

The next day we went to Black Dragon Lagoon.  The place is a postcard from any angle. From most spots around the lagoon, we could see the snow capped mountain in the background.  I can’t say much more about that.  The pictures will have to speak for themselves, though they cannot do the place justice in any way.

While we were there, a funeral “procession” came through.  The men carried bright paper & foil decorations.  It looked like a celebration, & the men were all laughing.  Catherine said the women were probably all home preparing the feast.  A wedding & a funeral while I’ve been here.  Unbelievable fortune.

There was a store (of course there was a store) where we could buy these fantastic embroidered “paintings.”  It is amazing the detail that these embroiderers can recreate.  Martha said that many of them go blind from the work.  I suppose then that it’s only fair that the pictures were out of my price range.  I took some pictures of these women working though.

In the same complex we went through a Naxi museum.  The Naxi original religion was something called Dongbhe.  The Naxi/Dongbhe have the only living pictorial language left in the world (well that’s what they said).  There was a Dongbhe scribe there that would write banners for you (for sale, of course).  While we were in the museum we saw the pictures of several Dongbhe priests.  The priesthood is passed down by generation, & so there are few of them left.  Unbelievably, there was one there.  He is blind.  The story is that he was so good at predicting people’s futures, that the gods struck him blind. 

I asked if I could go speak to him, & one of the people working in the museum said that I could.  All of my friends gathered around while this man talked to me (while the museum worker interpreted).  He asked my birth year (the year of the dog) and Wallace’s birth year (the ox).  He took some shells and stones & put them in a bowl & held them.  Then he got a huge smile on his face.  He said that Wallace & I would have no big problems.  He said we had a great love that was very “tight” & that we should sometimes have some distance so our marriage would have longevity. 

Do I believe in fortune tellers?  No.  But I got to personally speak to a priest of a very specific dying religious sect.  Not many Westerners will ever have such an opportunity.  My friends all took lots of pictures of the event, & one friend wrote down everything he said, so I have the best recording possible for myself.  Sometimes I still have to pinch myself here.

At night – shopping!  Shopping, shopping, lots of shopping.  Lijiang is cheap, even by Chinese standards.  I can’t believe the prices they charge for handmade work.  Old Town is like a maze, & the shops carry the same types of items.  It’s easy to get lost.  I set out to find my land marks.  For the record – from old Old Town, you head south, take the street between “Octopus Pill” and “Dried Meat Yak” shops, pass by “Home of Dream,” take the right side of the fork at “Tourism Service Informations,” & hang a right at the outdoor all brass barbeque grill.  That will take you right to the Wung Fu Hotel – in case you need to know.

Many of my most memorable experiences have happened while wandering/shopping.  One evening I bartered with a man for a pair of handmade embroidered shoes.  The price he quoted me was ridiculous, of course.  We went back & forth a few times.  Finally, I settled on 100 yuan (about $14).  He took my money, laughed, & pointed to my new shoes & said “Cheaper!” & kissed the bill.  He’d gotten one over on me.  I had to laugh.  Then, his daughter walked up with her baby.  He grabbed up the baby & dropped him right in my lap.  In China the babies all wear pants with a split between the legs & no diaper.  Baby needs to go, just set him outside.  Their children potty train very quickly.  So here I am with a naked butt giggly Chinese baby in my lap.  He was so cute I could’ve eaten his toes.  I have played with babies all across China.

Another shopping trip took us down a back road where we found a couple that makes silk stuffed comforters.  Rather than down or cotton, the nicer hotels (like the ones we’ve been staying at) have these wonderful silk stuffed comforters with cotton duvets.  We watched how this couple made the comforters, and Jo bought one (flying with all our purchases is getting more complicated & creative).  It was neat to watch.  We walked the rest of the way down the street, & inadvertently stumbled onto someone’s “estate.”  This enormous sheep dog comes bounding out, & right behind it was this giant Chinese man.  He wore a Communist cap (but obviously for fashion, not military).  He had a very neat beard & mustache, & a long black ponytail halfway down his back.  He spoke very good English – like he just carried on a conversation.  He asked if we were lost & told us very specifically how to get back.  He asked where we were from.  “The land of corn,” he said.  We told him “the land of Bill Clinton” (because everyone here knows Clinton).  He snorted “Clinton” back at us.  I asked where he was from, & he very vaguely said, “I am from China.”  He was very polite & helpful, but he had a dangerous aura about him.  When we walked away, Jo said, “I think maybe he’s someone famous.  You can tell there’s something about him.”  I died laughing.  I said, “Yeah, there’s something about him, alright.  He’s a drug lord.”  We are in hashishi & opium land after all.

The next to last day in Lijiang we went to two Tibetan monasteries.  The first one was about halfway up a smaller mountain.  It was very quiet & very simple.  There were frescos on the wall that were 400 years old.  Real Tibetan monks.  They were much more approachable than I expected – not that I engaged in conversation with them – but when I motioned a question as to whether or not I could take their pictures, they very kindly nodded yes.  In the first temple we climbed many steps after the first building, & eventually we came to a temple that has a 500 year old Chrysanthemum tree in the center.  In a corner sat an old old man.  The man is 91 years old, & he watches the tree day & night.  During the Cultural Revolution he was a young man.  The Communist soldiers came to destroy the tree, & he threw himself in front of it & told them they would have to kill him too.  The soldiers were so moved that they left the tree in tact.  The man has guarded the tree ever since.

The second temple was way way WAY up a mountain (8,000-9,000).  Along the way we saw a goat & her babies climbing around on the rocks.  This place seemed even more sacred.  In the courtyard there were monks tutoring boys.  The boys are in training to become monks themselves.  As a mother I found it hard to understand.  At the time I really looked forward to writing about these temples, but now I find it hard to convey the atmosphere there. 

Also, at this temple I committed my worst faux pas of the trip.  I was careful to take off my shoes, to be very quiet in the temple, to get permission before crossing anything that looked like a threshold.  I had almost made it out.  When I stepped back out of the temple I sat down to put on my shoes.  I sat right down on the elevated temple threshold with all the holy words painted on it.  The monk hurried to find me a stool, & Catherine very discreetly said, “perhaps there is a better place for you to sit.”  I was so embarrassed.

One night in Lijiang we went to a Naxi folk dancing festival thing.  It was obviously put on for tourists, but some of it was cool.  Jennifer would really have liked it.  After a while, I have gotten used to the sound of Asian music, & it’s really quite beautiful.  There was an old Donghbe holy man singing, & lots of chanting, & strange instruments (I have tried to get pictures of all the instruments here for Jenn.)  Also, there were Tibetan men performing, so I enjoyed the show.

The last full day we were in Lijiang I finally succumbed to the nagging sickness that had been with me since Dali (that dreaded traveler’s accompaniment), & I started running a fever.  I begged off of the trip to the Mou mansion – the Mou family was the original family of Emperors of the Naxi people before they were taken over by China a bagillion years ago, & the family is still around.  In fact, there are only two family names in Lijiang.  Everyone is either a Mou or a Hao (the farmers’ name).  I started taking an antibiotic that morning, & I’ve been fine ever since.  Glad I made that list of drugs for the doctor before I left on the trip.

We had some great food in Lijiang.  One night Catherine found our small group a place with hot pot.   It’s a huge bowl of boiling water & broth that they put on this low table with a fire underneath.  Ours started out with just black chicken in it – the whole chicken of course.  If you look at the picture closely, you can see the little chicken foot sticking out.  Then we added thinly sliced pork & vegetables & put hot chilis in it in our bowls.  It was really reeeeally good.  At one point Catherine looked over at Susie’s bowl & said, “are you sure you want that piece of chicken.”  I looked over & all I could see from my angle was the bottom of this beak sticking up.  Susie looked offended & said “Yes! I love thighs.”  Much giggling ensued as we waited for Susie to take another look.  Finally she decided she would pass on the chicken head.  

I bought some fresh fruit from the vender outside.  I’d forgotten that apples actually have a smell.

Another night I just picked up some skewers from the street venders.  I got some yak, along with my lamb and vegetables.  I do not recommend yak.  It tastes pretty good, but this must’ve been a 150 year old former plowing yak, because I couldn’t chew the stuff.

Before we left Lijiang I found Star & gave her a glass blue bird that was made in Arkansas.  She was very touched.  I have her picture, & she got my email address.  What a dear girl.

We left Lijiang & went to Hangzhou & are now in Shanghai.  I am full of seafood & wine & am going to bed.

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Kun Ming & Dali

Again… much to catch up on.

Kun Ming –

I find a new thing to love about each place.  At first Kun Ming was a little bit of a let down from Xi’ An.  But then we went to Green Lake.  My favorite things so far on this trip have mostly been getting to interact with people.  People were walking around this lake, enjoying the day despite the rain.  Some people gathered with instruments while others would sing & perform an impromptu concert in the park.  The music was so strange & yet after a while I began to sort of “understand” the style of music, & the sense of community was wonderful.

One thing I noticed in Kun Ming was that the older people – really older people – were especially kind to us.  I had one ancient man move & make me a place to sit on the bench so I could listen to the music.  At the same place, another teeeeeeeeeny old woman held Liz’s hand while we listened.  I was very puzzled, until I learned that Kun Ming was part of the Burma Road during World War II, and these people in Kun Ming are of the Yi minority group – the group that was involved with the Flying Tigers.  These people could remember being rescued from the Japanese during WWII.  And then, the thrill of a lifetime.  I actually met an 80 year old man who had been in the service working with the Flying Tigers.  What a piece of history.  What an amazing man.  He spoke just enough English (unlike other people in the city) that we were able to have a short conversation with him.  I was hating that Wallace didn’t get to meet him, and the gentleman didn’t want his picture made!  I hated missing the chance to document the meeting.

Dali  (6,000 ft +) –

Holy cow.  I can hardly describe the place.  This is at the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.   We started with going to a tie-dye “factory.”  This was really just a few women, most of them old, sitting in huts.  They stitch designs into the fabric & then use real indigo plants to die the fabric.  Wow.  The work is incredible.  I was in heaven there.

After that we went to the home of what I think is a middle-class family in the region.  The conditions are well below what any of us would consider palatable.  The house was (I believe) 400+ years old with 3 generations of the family living there.  Some of the family members were selling things, & a couple of people in our group were trying to buy some things.  They were having difficulty understanding each other, so I went over & in my little bit of bad Chinese I worked it out for them.  That old woman, who had so little, turned to me & gave me a gift.  At first I was unsure what she meant, so I put it back down.  Then Catherine came over, & I discreetly let her know what was going on.  She told me to put it down.  Then the woman put the pendant on my neck, patted it & firmly said “souvenir!”  I hardly knew what to say, but Catherine told me that I had followed the cultural protocol & not to make any more fuss about it.  The Chinese business people aren’t in the habit of giving away anything, so I was really touched.

Next we went to the shopping district of the Bai people.  They are a minority group.  I thought the Xi’ An market was high pressure.  WOW.  At one point I had 6 women hanging off my arm yelling prices at me.  I finally had to be a little rude.  It was raining hard, & the market was seriously mucky.  Still I found a lot of handmade things there that I loved.

Finally we went back to our hotel room.  I couldn’t believe the place.  It looked like something out of a movie from the 40’s or 50’s.  I seriously kept expecting to see Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy walking around in the courtyard outside our window.  The hotel was so beautiful, & I was so tired, I decided to stick around the room for a while & just enjoy it.  I had a glass of wine & then took advantage of the hotel massage service that was offered.  I got the whole body Chinese medicine massage, & it was seriously painful at times.  But I had had shin splints since about the second day of the trip & a pain in my back from carrying my bags, & when he was done I was cured!  I had the tendency to keep thinking I was wasting time by not going out & experiencing the town, but then I thought, “Virginia, you’re in Dali in a gorgeous villa style hotel, having a massage – you are experiencing it.”

We went to dinner that night with Catherine.  She always orders the most authentic Chinese.  We had clay pot fish soup – which I hate because of all the bones.  But everything else was really good.  The vegetables are the freshest I’ve ever tasted.

The next day we went to Erhai lake.  We rode across the lake in a boat to an island with a local fishing village.  The weather was still kind of crappy, & the water was choppy, but I was not bothered at all.  All around us were the Himalayans, & I was on the water.  It was gorgeous.  We got to the village & walked all through these alleys and courtyards until we came to a Daoist temple.  I took pictures while people lit incense in the temple.  The temples are really cool, but their choice of colors here always makes me think of a cartoon.  The art is really incredible though.

Around the corner & down an alley was a Buddist temple that, for some reason, a lot of people missed.  I’m so glad I didn’t.  It had an archway that looked out over the water.  Just beautiful.  I think I got some good pictures of that.

We shopped a little (because in China someone is always selling something wherever you go).  There were chickens & chicks wandering around the landing.  Then we got back on the boat & went back across the lake.  The sun popped out, the clouds cleared off the mountain.  I was on a lake.  I put on my MP3 player & listened to Jimmy Buffet all the way back across.  I was glad to be on the water in the sunshine for a while.

After lunch, they took us to Cangshan Mountain.  Unfortunately, it has started to rain again… and then pour.  But, you have a chance to go up a Himalayan mountain – what are you gonna do?  We took lifts up the mountain.  When I say “up the mountain” – we’re talking UP.  The ride alone took a solid 30 minutes, if not more.  We got soaked to the bone, despite our umbrellas & ponchos.  The ride up was actually the coolest part because we could see everywhere, & there are tombs all along the way.  China doesn’t allow burial anymore; cremation is required.  Once we got up to the top, the view was not so great because of the clouds (& it was pretty miserable being so wet).  More temples at the top.

That night my favorite group of people and I wandered the streets of Dali, stopped & had a few beers & just talked about the amazing things & people we’d seen so far.  Then we wandered around (& shopped) some more.  One of the coolest things in Dali is that there is this busy street life – people everywhere.  There are people selling handmade goods, people grilling skewers on the street, people standing outside their restaurants next to all the vegetables & animals that they have available on their menu.  The vegetables are so fresh.  I imagine that the eels in the bucket are pretty fresh too, but I decided to pass.  Anyway, all of these people & the high activity is set against the backdrop of these amazing mountains.

I was pretty burned out on Chinese food, & so Ely & I decided to try out the Indian food place we’d seen down the street.  It was seriously the best Indian food I’ve ever had.  I also tried Saigon beer (Vietnamese in Dali?? No idea.) because the food was so spicy it was making us sweat!  YUM!  While we were there a group of about 10 Indian teachers from the medical university in India came in, & we struck up a conversation with them.  They were a lot of fun – very funny.  One of them is a master yoga instructor (!) & gave me his number so he can give me private yoga lessons when I visit India.  Cool.

Afterwards we met up with the rest of our friends at a bar they’d told us about.  A Chinese girl named Kikki runs the place – very hippie & cool – this is why everyone told me I had to meet her.  While we were there we met a Korean couple & several Aussies.  Kikki was really cool, very knowledgeable, worldly.  It’s a shame she’s running a bar in Dali.  She would do well in the states.  I’ve had that thought about several people I’ve met here.

It was late by then, so we headed back to the hotel.  Along the way little old ladies kept offering to sell us “hashishi.”  We politely declined.

 That catches me up until Lijiang.  Hopefully I’ll have more time tonight to write.

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Xi ‘An

Wow, I’m really behind getting down all my sights & dumping photos off my camera.  It’s so hard to make myself stop & record what I’m seeing & doing when I’d rather be seeing & doing some more!

Banpo Museum.  We saw the site of a Neolithic village, complete with skeletons & artifacts.   It was pretty interesting & hard to believe that those were real people  5000 to 4000 B.C. 

Terra Cotta Warrior Museum in Xi’An.  I knew about the sight, & was looking forward to it, but nothing could prepare me for the scale.  There are 3 excavated or partially excavated pits & a few completely unexcavated ones.  Pit No. 1 by itself is the size of about three football fields put together.  Each one of those soldiers is unique, and it’s assumed that each looks like a real soldier of Emporer Qin’s in 246 BC.  It’s overwhelming when you keep going through & it goes on and on and on and on.  But it’s mindblowing when you look at a face & realize that a man that really looked like that lived 6000 years ago & had a wife & kids & planted a garden & played with the dog…  They were real people.

I took a picture of a nice Communist soldier at the museum.  He looked like a boy.  They don’t smile, but they are very accommodating.  We see them out sightseeing in packs as well, & in those situations there are just like regular guys.  Most of them look like children to me.  Also, I felt like quite a celebrity at the terra cotta soldier museum.  A group of Korean men all wanted their picture made with me, and one asked for my number.  It was very flattering.  The men were funny & charming.  I think it was the red hair – that’s what someone told me anyway.

You can see the Emporer’s tomb (a buried pyramid) from the museum site, but the government will not excavate it because historical documents record that he filled a mote and tributaries with mercury to represent water.  And there are high mercury contents in the soil there.  So I guess it’s good that they don’t disturb that.

Another thing we saw in Xi’An is the tomb of the one of the princesses of China.  Princess Yongtai.  She was the daughter (maybe granddaughter) of the only Empress China ever had.  When I saw we saw the tomb, I mean we went into the tomb!  A real pyramid, and we got to go underground & walk down the path with 1300 year old frescos on the wall that you could reach out & touch (but I didn’t).  We walked right up to her actual tomb with her actual body inside (they haven’t opened it).  They won’t even let you in the tombs in Egypt anymore.  I doubt this particular opportunity will exist for very much longer here.  Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take any pictures in there – even without a flash.  It was killing me.  Wallace would have seriously dug it.  I really wanted to do a rubbing of the tomb, but there were bars around it, & even though it would be easy to put your hand through the bar that was really only symbolically there to keep people away, I decided that touching a national treasure in a Communist country is probably a bad idea.

We’ve been to several museums with lots of amazingly old artifacts.  Honestly, after a while it’s hard to focus on how special each item is.

After the tomb we ate at a small rural restaurant with very simple country food.  The noodles were very good, & again the vegetables were so fresh.  Outside the museum there were women selling their handmade baby items with the symbols of the 5 poisons to protect.  There are always people selling things everywhere, but some of them make me want to buy more than others.  These two little grandmothers were very likable.

Yesterday we went to the school in Xi’An.  There was a mix-up, & I ended up observing a class of elementary school children.  They were so fun & funny.  Two little girls, Doris & Sandy, used my phrasebook to help me with my Chinese.  I got to talk to several teachers, & it was great.  The two teachers I observed teaching were very interactive & fun & used really modern teaching methods.  It was another eye-opener.

But mostly, I love Xi’An itself.  I love the energy there.  I love the people there.  I love the sites & sounds & foods.   There is a merchant district that filled with booth after booth of people selling things – some good, some junk, but all overpriced if you are silly enough to pay what they ask.  Lady! Lady!  Hello!  I make you good price!  I got quite good at playing the game with them & walked away feeling very satisfied most of the time.  It’s been recommended that you start by offering half.  I frequently got what I wanted for a quarter of what they started with.  It can be addictive.  It is very exhausting.  After the first day I didn’t go back again until the last night.  I finally decided that I enjoyed a purchase more if I sort of liked the person I was buying from.  After that, I enjoyed my experience more & cut down my bartering time.  I didn’t have to walk away from many possible purchases.  Not surprisingly, some of the phrases I know the best are “Bu Shao!  Xia Xien” (I don’t want it! Thank you!) and “Duo shao quien” (how much) and “Bu shi! Giao!”  (No!  Expensive)  “Shi.  Shi.” (yes yes) and “Xia Xian” (thank you).

Catherine knows all of the local places & took a small group of us out one night to dinner.  All the food in Xi’An is really really fresh.  They have the best tasting vegetables.  I have liked everything I have eaten here except when I’ve gone to the touristy places & eaten the same things they offer over at Hunaan Place in Little Rock.  We had spicy roasted eggplant, spinach with garlic shoots, fried bean curd in chili sauce, & some kind of fresh water fish.  She turned us on to the local beer, which is very light & refreshing in that hot climate, & very low in alcohol, so we could drink it without worry.

We found a supermarket, & Susie & I got a case of water.  After that we went there almost every night & bought a couple of beers & local snacks.  I started trying a different kind of ice cream every night.  One of my favorites is milk with mung bean.  There is also a kind of roasted bean that is sort of like a nut that is very good, & it goes well with beer.

My favorite meal was from a place in the Muslim district.   The first night we found the place Susie & I were with a pretty tame crowd, & many of the people didn’t really enjoy how very spicy the food is.  It was sort of confusing.  This place was totally authentic – no English, no English on the menu, no pictures.  It was hard to figure out how it worked, but we sort of did.  You picked out your vegetables on the skewers.  They cooked them on the open air grill outside & brought them to you.  Everything was heavily seasoned with curry & cayenne pepper & cumin & garlic & who knows what else.  HOT!  Then they came around with trays of meat on skewers yelling out what they had, & you raised your fingers for how many you wanted.  Fortunately all the “regular” meats were small cuts & the organ meats were large, so it was pretty easy to tell you were getting something you wanted.  The energy in the place is so HIGH!  It’s like a crazy party.

The next night I took a group of about 8 really fun adventurous types out to the same place.  The sort of floor manager guy from the night before remembered me.  He spoke just enough broken English & I spoke just enough broken Chinese that we got it figured out.  He was very gracious & took care of our table.  I asked him to pick out some vegetables for us & told him what kind of meats we wanted & how many of those flat breads to bring us.  Between the two of us, we managed to feed the table a feast that everyone really liked.  Even people who said “I just want chicken” started wolfing it down.  We ate 4 whole carps, a stack of veggies, & a mountain of lamb, chicken, & beef.  I even tried beef tripe, & it was good!  The people I took said it was their very favorite meal of the trip.  My new friend Wu Tsao Tsen said he would see me again tomorrow, but it was our last night in Xi’An.  I had my picture made with him before I left.

After the huge dinner, I peeled off with a couple of people from the larger group & we went to the square.  Around sundown they play music, & there is a sort of choreographed fountain display.  It’s quiet.  There are many grandparents with their grandchildren.  People are just enjoying their family & friends.  We grabbed a beer from the local vender & copped squat on the grass & sat there soaking in the happy positive energy from the place.  One very nice older gentleman sat near us & kind of attended us.  We played with his granddaughter & met his wife.  They were lovely.  All around the city there are people, usually older people, that ask for your empty bottles to collect the recycling deposit.  One older woman sat & smiled & communicated as well as she could while we finished our beer – which took a long time – so she could have the bottles.  It wasn’t desperation that kept her there.  It’s more like it was patience.  The evening was beautiful.  The breeze was blowing.  A 700 year old temple sat in the background.  Children played all around.  And she just waited there & smiled while we sipped our beers & then thanked us when we gave her our bottles.  I took pictures of all those lovely people.  People in China are not just polite.  There are friendly & open.  I never would have expected it.  I did not want to leave Xi’An this morning. 

Today we arrived in Ku Ming.  We are very close to the Vietnam border.  This area is not used to white tourists.  There are a lot more stares.  We went to a museum here, but again it all starts to run together.  Also, I seem to have gotten badly dehydrated.  I drink water constantly, but my body quit absorbing it.  I had to find a drink mix with some electrolytes in it & eat some salty snacks.  I felt better by this evening, but I was pretty stupid-headed this afternoon.  Ku Ming is not as easy to navigate, & I can’t imagine that I will love this place as much as Xi’An, but it’s neat to be in an area that is not at all tourist driven.  Things are reeeeeeeeeeeally cheap.  It’s a small town – only 6 million people.  Also, the weather is much nicer here so far.  It’s significantly cooler, not as humid, & there is usually a breeze.

There is virtually no crime here… which is a good thing because I got lost as a goose tonight.  Catherine, Susie, Kathy, & I set out to find an out of the way restaurant, which we did.  On the way we looked at the sights, stopped & bought some fruit, & saw a Wal-Mart.  At dinner we had a cucumber, cilantro, vinegar-chili salad, a tofu dish, fried lotus plant, a whole fish in some kind of sweet red sauce – this fish was carved in the most intricate pattern – all very good.  After dinner Kathy & I thought it would be fun to look around the Chinese Wal-Mart.  It was pretty weird.  We bought some stuff, mostly looked around. 

When we left it was closing time.  We got outside & several of the exits from the outside mall to the street were gated off.  We walked round & round & finally got to the street.  By this time we were all turned around & it was pouring rain.   There is construction all around the hotel, so that means even if/when we figured out where our hotel was, it wasn’t a straight shot.  I stuck a bandana on my head, Kathy stuck a plastic sack on her head.  We stopped & asked a couple of young girls in the pharmacy.  Remember, unlike Beijing where most people spoke quite a bit of English, or Xi’An where a lot of people spoke some English, most people in Ku Ming speak no English.  I have a few phrases, a phrase book, and a card with the hotel address.  Kathy & I were laughing so hard & getting so soaked.  We stopped & talked to another gentleman who pointed us further (& helped us figure out how to get around the construction).  Finally, we arrived at our 4 star hotel sopping wet, & Kathy with a bag on her head.  It’s always an adventure!

Wan An from Ku Ming.

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