The rice terraces I last wrote about sprawl over a large territory, so after seeing all I could of one village (Ping An), I wanted to see more. I decided to take my backpack and hike the four hours it takes to get to Dazhai. After the first hour and a half, I passed by a woman who would end up turning my lonely hike into what I would later call “The Sublime Secrets of the Huanglo Yao Sisterhood”.
Po-Po (that’s what I ended up calling her because it means grandmother) looked to be in her 70’s- one eye covered with cataracts and what she lacked in teeth, she made up for in spirit. She laughed when I said I wasn’t interested in taking (and paying for) photos, but she was saying something else I couldn’t figure out, so I followed her to see where she was going. She walked over to a basket of tree limbs she had been collecting and took out her machete. She whacked away at a few limbs to try to get them all to fit. I wondered who would be coming by to pick the basket up- it easily weighed as much as she did. She took the left over limbs and put them in a neat little pile and then crouched down and lifted the entire basket pn her back. I was overcome with a torrent of guilt – I had been complaining to myself about my 20 pound backpack, plus- how could I let an old woman carry something so heavy? I tried to help but she shooed me away, so I picked up the pile of sticks she had left. She was delighted to have the help. She said something about eating and I figured she wanted me to buy her lunch, which I was thoroughly glad to do. Hell, watching her carry that load, I wanted to buy her a personal masseuse and a four wheel drive wagon!
I followed her down the path, knowing that we must be close to the next village (Zhong Liu). The path is a series of slippery uneven rocks that she delicately floated over like a gazelle. We passed by a collection of 7 foot long tree limbs that someone else was collecting. I was leading the way and when I looked back, I noticed Po-Po had an ax in her hand. Had she left the ax there or did she swipe it from whoever had collected the 7 footers? We walked a bit farther -my arms already tired from my paltry collection of limbs- but when I looked back at supergrandmawwoman, I saw her hiding the ax in the shrubs. Was that where she kept it so she didn’t have to haul it back home? After 15 minutes or so, we came upon two other Yao women with the “long hair hats” (like the one from the previous video). They picked up their sticks and joined us on the long haul back to the village. Along the way the cluster of women that had been collecting the 7 footers came by and there was much whispering among the ladies I was with. They were intent that I understood I would eat with them- or something like that…. I wasn’t sure what they were saying, actually. I think they wanted me to stay at their place for the night, but I had to make it to the next village to make the morning bus. I think they were saying they would be cheaper than a place in Dazhai, but Po Po sweetly held my hand and shewed them away and I think (or like to think) she was saying I could just stay with her for free.
Finally the village was in sight and we stopped just short of the village so Po-Po could put her traditional dress and skirt over the t-shirt and pants she was wearing. I helped Po-Po take off the basket and massaged her shoulders. I pulled out all the food I had to share – bacon, eggs and toast- leftovers from my morning breakfast and we shared my coffee as well. I was imagining the meal I wanted to buy for her- something that massaged her from the inside and pampered her like a Swedish Spa.
As we got closer to the village, I looked around to see where a restaurant might be, but I could tell this was not a village for tourist. No restaurants, tourist trinkets or signage anywhere indicating you could buy something. I followed Po-Po to her place to drop off her load.
The bottom of the house was like a barn with things strewn about and small pens that looked like they once housed animals. They took me upstairs and insisted I sit down and it was then I realized that they were going to cook ME lunch. I tried to explain I wanted to buy THEM lunch, but they were already in meal making mode. Po Po was concerned I was hot and she insisted I take my shirt off (Okaaayyy?), then she got a stiff rag to wipe down my back and brought a shirt of hers for me to wear.
When I travel, I love to give away the clothes I bring, so I decided she was the perfect person to get this one:
I visited with the other ladies as Po- Po disappeared to her garden. They dressed me up in the traditional attire and we had some Kodak moments. Another woman came over with her baby and we all giggled like teenage babysitters.
I heard that they have an “open mind” about relationships and I am wondering if this might also be the matriarchal tribe of women I’ve heard about that ‘call the shots’ in the relationship – choosing who they will marry and if they want to stay with them. There was a man in the house when I was there, but he never came out.
After lunch, we said our goodbyes in a delicate “wonder if I’ll every see you again” kind of way. I hope I do and do it with photos in tow, because they really cemented a memory in my brain and I’d love to pass it back.
I began the long trek to the next village. Along the way, I saw another women that had collected a huge pile of 7 foot tree limbs. She was about to haul it on her shoulders and I asked her if I could try it. No way. It was like trying to lift a dead Sumo wrestler. This gal had the body of a third grader- about 4 foot 10″ and 95 pounds and she too glided like a gazelle on these slippery steps, passing me on the path as I stepped like a cautious cripple.
Once I made it to the next village, I got a room for $5 and dissolved into a pile of aching muscles.
I hiked the rest of the trek to Dazhai the next morning and then caught the bus that ekes out a long descent through pristine countryside that’s just perfect for reflecting on the Huanglao Yao sisterhood.
Here’s a little Ladies Home video Journal .
Here is a short video of one of the women I described in the previous blog. It’s pretty amazing!
After the week rolled by, I had fully recovered from the stolen wallet, so I decided to strap on the traveling boots and try to make it to the rice terraces once again. This time I superglued my money and essentials to the inside of my armpits where no one could get them.
Getting to my destination – Ping An- was an ordeal, but as usual, the people showed me the way when I floundered. I don’t know if they thought I was pathetic or just mildly retarded, but they were friendly and helpful as ever.
I was too cheap to take the tourist buses that go there (plus I have to watch my money now that I have no way of getting more) so I took the local buses. At one point I was in the middle of nowhere, sitting on a dirt pile on the side of the road, waiting for a connecting bus while a sweet man kept signaling for me to wait as bus after bus went by. Finally a rickety thing that looked like it might be held together with nails and duct tape came rolling by and he motioned for me to flag it down. It ws standing room only.
Kids had just gotten off school – it was 5:30- and the bus was full of them and elder tribal ladies in their ethnic attire, weathered faces and bizarre head gear that looks like it’s made out of hair. After a long and winding road that would even be breathtaking to the Beatles, we made it to the gates of Ping An where we began walking. There are no cars or bicycles allowed because the houses in the village are all on the side of the mountains with stone steps leading everywhere, so walking is the only way to get around. Once inside the village, it’s a maze of surprisingly-easy-to-get-lost-on stone paths.
Many of the women here are from the Huanglo Yao tribe. They only cut their hair once or twice in life, when they are 18 and later, if needed. They then save this 3 foot long pony tail and later, as their hair grows out all the way to the floor, they wrap their hair around their ‘childhood’ ponytail. (I’m sending another video of it – it’s amazing) The river of hair is then curled in a bun worn at the top of their forehead. Here is what they look like when they “let their hair down”:
As soon as I settled in my hotel, the village’s labyrinth was yelling for me to come out and play. I didn’t think to bring a coat or a flashlight, both of which I needed as soon as the sun went down. The waiter at the outdoor restaurant-with-a-view where I ate saw that I was cold and brought me a tablecloth to wrap myself up in. I covered my shoulders and head with it, to get that “just released from a Russian gulag” look, and enjoyed my meal. On the way home, I got completely lost as I tried to light my way with my iPhone. Yet another sweet Chinese boy showed me the way – taking me all the way to my door after seeing I was unable to follow difficult directions like “go straight”.
The next morning, I laid in bed enjoying my view:
Finally, I went for a walk around the rice terraces. These paths are better marked, so I only got lost once (but it was a good lost) The harvest happened about a month ago, so now the fields are covered in autumn colors. They’re mesmerizing in any season, as you can tell:
Firecrackers are always used to celebrate- moving into a building, weddings, business openings… they all get cracking. Like the photo above, they sweep aside the red wrappings like a reminder of good luck.
And many traffic and legal rules are presented with sweet anime type characters like this:
I’m sitting on my balcony in Ping An, thinking back on the trip about the things that made me laugh or think.
My days here are numbered now. That endless supply that seemed to start fresh each morning is dwindling, like an extinct bird being preserved for memory. So I thought Id write out some of the observations before they get lost from memory.
The toilet situation has been fascinating, prompting me to write an as yet unfinished piece called “Around the World In 30 Craps”. But I loved this “how to” poster I saw in one bathroom:
When we were filming the movie, sometimes we shot in hotels. When we did, we ate the meals in the workers cafeteria. The food was not the traditional fare we westerners were use to, but it was an interesting opportunity to try new things. Michael (Kissenger) feels the way about eating chinese food that most people would about drinking their own urine and watching his face disolve into disappointment when we stood in line to have the food slapped onto our cafeteria trays still makes me laugh. But we all agreed it was great to get to experience the “school lunch’ style of eating. They don’t serve liquids – water, tea, etc. with the meal. Instead, there is always a soup and this serves as the liquid you drink if you accidentally swallow a sichuan napalm bomb, etc. There must be ten times the vegetables here- I’ve never seen so many different varieties of greens and potatoes and roots and squashes. My school has communal meals as well and I’m so glad for the opportunity to try things I would have never picked off a menu- bean sprouts and pork, stringy chewy dried tofu, caramelized taro root and the endless varieties of the soup to wash it al down. It’s been delicious every time.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of a plate lunch, but here’s another food newbie I had never seen before. They called it “chinese hamburgers’- half buns that you stuffed with the meat.
The men here smoke enough cigarettes to rival a coal factory. Cigarettes are sold in huge stores where nothing else is sold and where the gargantuan selection is displayed in glass cases like precious pieces of jewelry. In the future, they can use these glass cases to showcases the black lungs that are extracted from this wheezing population of men as they age. Here's some video of that and a couple more observations:
There’s so much out there to see.
I just want to grab it all. I am feeling particularly clingy with life right now. There’s a huge cloud of tragedy floating around our friends in New York – three separate families that have lost a loved one. My heart is heavy with the loss and all the confusing thoughts that accompany the whole they leave behind. I can give details when I see you, but in the meant time, I just wanted to stake a claim on the preciousness of life and to tell all of you how much I love you and how blessed I am to have you in my life. I know we hear how “each little moment is a gift” and smile slyly at the Hallmark nature of it, but I don’t care how trite it sounds, life IS beautiful and it is made more beautiful by having YOU in it. So thank you! Thank you for letting me share some of this life with you.
big long warm tight hugs to you all
I’ve been laying low here in Yangshou (I like how that rhymes) waiting to feel like my old self again, but I started to get restless.
I got a small window of clear nasal passages and decided it was a sign that I was on the mend, so I quickly packed and set off to see the rice paddies.
The rice paddies are those stair-like lunar landscape looking things you’ve seen in National Geographic and they’re only three hours away! I have to see them with my own bloodshot eyes.
This involves taking an hour long bus to Guilin, (the nearest large city) and then changing to another bus in a small town, where I ask the driver to let me off before the final destination and then taking a small mini van that will go to my destination once it is ‘full of passengers”, which I am told could be anywhere from ten minutes to time-to-get-a-hotel.
En route, I make a phone call on my chinese cell phone to a hotel to book a room. I ask in chinese if she can speak English and she says ‘little’. I say “I want room. Tonight OK?” and she sweetly gets information in her “Chinglish” (as they call it). I try to help by speaking a little “Gibberish” (as I call it… because God knows you can’t call it Chinese when it’s coming out of my mouth) When she realizes I am on a bus, she tells me I will not be able to get there tonight. The last mini bus will have already left. She says I “might” get a cab and that it would cost about 100yuan ($15) This means it will actually end up costing me about 150 – 200 yuan, because I know how these things go when you’re a blonde speaker of gibberish and the taxi is your only option. I decide 150 yuan is too expensive ( and I don’t like the word “might”) Instead, I will stay the night in Guilin and leave early in the morning.
I go to a hostel near the bus station I am familiar with where a room is about $11 and they have Wifi and an awesome staff.
By now, my head is pounding from the coughing. I been trying to suppress the coughing which must sound, to anyone listening, like I am trying to birth a small child through my wind pipe. It comes from a herculean effort to try to dislodge the rattling phlem that is coagulating in my lungs, after it drips from my infected sinuses.
I don’t want to admit the possibility that I should turn around and go back to Yangshou because I am sure it can be cured by a hot bowl of Guilin’s famous “Guilin Noodles” (I love the creative risks they took in naming their soup) The awesome staff recommended an awesome restaurant where the awesome soup was 50 CENTS – yes! a price so cheap, my key pad doesn’t even have a symbol for it, so I have to spell it out.
Now, I can be a bit neurotic when I travel. It’s not the only time I’m neurotic- I’ve been known to walk in the middle of the street when there’s no one on it- but it definitely balloons when long distances are added. I like to have multiple pockets on the front or side so I can keep my passport, iPhone (aka “my son”) credit cards and money on me at all times. But tonight, I am also traveling with a small orange travel pouch bag, holding my camera, little green wallet, glasses and a small red thing with bandaids and extra money.
I stop to watch a group of kids rollerblading in an empty lot. It’s the first time I’ve seen rollerblades here and the wheels of their skates light up as they spin around, making it look like firecrackers are coming out of their feet in the darkness of the night. I love how China has kids everywhere at every hour. They were screaming with laughter and falling hard enough to induce sobbing, but brushing it off without a tear shed, then getting back up to do it all over again.
I stop to take photos. This draws the kids to me and they are all zooming around me, shaking me, wanting to see the photos. Kids who are all at orange-travel-pouch-bag level while both my hands are on the camera.
And I think that’s maybe when it happened?
The next morning I realized my wallet is gone from the small orange travel bag. I tore through the room like a wild boar looking for truffles, but it was gone. I retraced all my steps, realizing I had only once even opened the bag, which was before going to get noodles and that was to double check the wallet was there. I went to the awesome staff and asked if they had seen it, but of course they hadn’t.
I’m probably wrong. I know I’m wrong to jump to conclusions.
But when things like this happen, your inner detective demands answers. So my accusatory nature will point to some kids out for a good time while some middle aged nincompoop has her hands up, her guard down and a neon green wallet staring them right in the face.
After all, kids will be kids. Hell, I got busted for stealing candy from a Globe store when I was a kid with my best friend, Karla. When her mother came to pick us up, she shamed us saying “I can’t believe these girls would DO something like this! To think, these girls were actually thinking of trying out for cheerleader! But they are clearly NOT cheerleader material!”
So maybe it’s better if I do pin it on the kids. I’ll just shame them silently. Besides, they’re easier to forgive than adults.
So what did the finder of the green wallet get? About 60 bucks, a credit card and and an ATM card. The fact I didn’t have it on me makes me want to kick my own butt with a wooden leg.
The cards are replaceable, the money is a good lesson and the wallet was a piece of crap anyway. (Sometimes I like to hold on to things just to see how long I can hold on to them and this wallet was going on four or five years, so it ended with a good story….well an interesting one, at least)
After obsessing over the wallet like a deranged stalker, I finally decided it was best just to go back to Yangshou.
On the way home, anger finally subsiding, but head still held low, I thought about what Rita Poe would say. For those of you that don’t know Rita Poe, she is the make-shift doctor all five of the kids in my family refer to as “Momma”. She has remedies for everything and they all start with or end with “a good bath’. That’s what I needed. A good bath.
But, I am beginning to believe most Chinese people don’t like to submerge themselves in water. No bath tubs, no swimming pools, no jacuzzis. I’ve looked for a spa with a ‘sauna’ or something, but no luck. Chinese people like showers.
As any of you know I am but a delicate flower from the gentle and soft-spoken land known as “Texas” and, as such, I am unversed in the cold ways of showering. I have heard there are hot springs near the fields of rice paddies and someday, with God as my witness, I shall make it to pearly gallons of sulfuric water.
But, for now, poegirl needs a quick fix. So I got one.
You know those deep plastic containers they sell for storage? They’re sort of a cloudy white plastic, about two and a half feet high, three feet long and two feet wide – they usually come with a top so you can stack them and store blankets, power tools, discarded wallets or whatever you want inside of them. They certainly do make great storage, but I have discovered, they also make a great bath tub.
Fill it up with hot water, curl yourself up into a little ball and submerge yourself into a blissful cauldron that can soak away the seething self hatred and flagellation that carelessness causes one to reap on oneself. While your innards boil to a gooey paste, your mind is transported to a place where everything is fun and wallets aren’t even necessary.
Back in my room in Yangshou, I wonder if I did the right thing coming “home” as I now think of it. I could have had a phlegm-filled, headache driven, turbo coughing day of sightseeing in Guilin. After all, I still had more money in the little red pouch if anyone needed more to steal. But alas, I am here, legs steaming red from my personal lobster boil. And as the the construction workers outside help loosen the phlem from my lungs, shaking the building with their caucophony of hammering and tile-cutting, I am reminded… be it ever so foreign, there’s no place like home.
here’s a little footage of things that have nothing to do with the story I just told ya- love you guys! xo
This is the view out of my dorm room at Meicheng College. It’s a bit more like a hotel room, really, but that’s where I’ve been spending my last few days laying low, getting over a bout of bronchitis. For now, the only school where I am teaching in Yangshou is this ‘college’ where I am staying. It is a language school that people from all over China come to and they live in these rooms. I was given a great room with typical chinese fare, a squat toilet with a shower hose next to it (note to self – don’t close eyes when showering if you don’t want to step in the toilet!!), a desk, a porch with a bit of a view and a “Chinese style” bed.
Chinese beds typically have no box springs. They have a wooden bottom and then a thick mattress on top that is so hard that when you knock on it with your knuckles, it makes a sound loud enough to make you think someone might actually knock back. But all the same, I sleep like a baby until the “alarm clocks’ go off.
Six days a week, the construction starts around 7:00 in the morning. Or at least that’s when the pounding gets so loud that it shakes my bed, but who knows, maybe they actually start at sunrise. As you can tell from all the bamboo scaffolding, there is a lot of construction going on here. Next door, a jackhammer is slowly but consistently hammering away the old cement to make way for the new. This sound is only broken up by the nerve shattering pitch of a tile cutter ripping through the air. Thank God I brought earplugs! Luckily, years of hearing the “New York songbirds” of horns and car alarms has given me an internal volume control for these kinds of things.
I am waiting for my boss “Mr Wonderful” to get back to get my day school assignment. His chinese name is Wan De Fu, but since it sounds like Wonderful, that’s what everyone calls him.
For now, I am leading a nightly discussion class with the students to get them to use their English. It’s been a terrific way to learn more things about the culture. The other day I had them describe their “dream house’, where it could have anything they wanted. I expected to hear swimming pools, flat screen TV’s, a fireplace, a soft bed…. But what almost every student named was a garden. When I encouraged more description about the house, they would add to the garden – fruit trees, roses, vegetables…
They’ve described their national holidays – I think there’s 5 and most of them aren’t traditional, like “National Day”, a holiday set up by the government, so it doesn’t mean anything to people, except they get off work.
When we discussed the hospital system, they said you get an IV. For everything? Yes. You get an IV. So, if you go for a sinus infection? You get an IV. And you must drink hot tea.
Buying medicine at the local pharmacy is always a test of faith. The pharmacist looks like young kids playing on their computers. I look up words like “expectorate” on my iPhone’s chinese dictionary, and they say something and pull a box out. It’s all written in chinese, so I’m at a total loss. Hopefully it’s working. I’m ready to get back out into the Yangshou sunshine
We’ve discussed the differences between “New China” and “Old China”- kids can all have milk with breakfast now, young people move off the farms, many grandparents are raising the kids, girls are more promiscuous (I taught them that word) and there are more opportunities and open discussions.
We’ve discussed how they go to school. In middle school and high school, students go away and live in dorms and then return home to their parents on the weekends. Primary and middle school are free, but you pay a small amount for high school. you pay for books and they are very expensive.
I was surprised to even hear one of them speak out against Mao.”I hate Mao, he killed my people”. I thought this was considered punishable sacrilege, but not in “New China”.
I took the students on a long bike ride the other day. I don’ think they expected to be huffing it so much. I didn’t remember it being so long when I did it before! Along the way we saw a cave and we all went in and explored it until we came out on the other side. I love doing that stuff, but I don’t like doing it alone. This is the best shot I got of them- they’re all really sweet and they took me to lunch!
I went to a restaurant near my hotel in Beijing that catered to western tourist. I sat there eating spinach ravioli with a creamy vodka sauce while the restaurant’s stereo had The Flying Burrito Brothers singing about Sorth Carolina. On the TV, there was a Chinese music competition where a group of girls wore cheerleader styled shorts and shook their pom poms (among other things) to pole-dancing moves set against Backstreet Boys sounding Chinese music. Sometimes it just seems like nothing in this world is very far away.
That is, until one of the cheerleaders goes out to do her “spotlight dance’ to traditional chinese opera music. I’m not sure, but I think this music is made with two frying pans and a meat cleaver. There’s not really a “melody’ just a progression from fast beating to even faster beating. Either way, it’s made even more bizarre when coupled with a a contorting Chinese cheerleader.
It’s fun to watch how things blend together here. Like the ad in the photograph up above. It is advertising an upscale apartment complex saying it is a place “where you can drink till you fall down”.
Naturally, these attempts at English are going to occasionally miss the mark and turn into “Chinglish” s they call it, but it is all still light years ahead of my Chinese, so I applaud the effort. But television here doesn’t give many opportunities for Chinglish mishaps.
Chinese TV is, to no surprise, censored. So all of the shows you see are Chinese. Unlike Vietnam, where they have everything from HBO to drab Russian dramas that make you want to turn the heat on, Chinese TV shows Chinese shows. Occasionally I have seen a foreign show on the English speaking CCTV channel that plays around the clock news programs. To their credit, the censorship helps to encourage an enormous national film and TV market But it might not help with promoting the bi-lingualism they are driving towards. I noticed there were a lot more people in Vietnam that spoke English than I had seen here in China and I wondered if it had something to with the access their TV gave them. The government control in China does give them a chance to promote tourism in their country – lots and lots of quick commercials showing the country’s must-see travel destinations.
Still, Chinese TV feeds my attention deficit disorder like a pig trough. Because I don’t speak the language, I will imagine the dialogue and impulsively change channels when I think I’ve got it. I will flick from channel to channel like I’ve got a gluttonous appetite for incomprehension.
There are generally about 70 channels, showing about 30 programs. Channel 17 might be showing the same program that channel 48 is. It took me forever to figure this out. I was always so amazed at how similar people looked.
All TV programs here are edited with a guillotine. As soon as the last words of a scene are said, it immediately switches to a commercial. There are no fade outs or lingering organ music- just a sudden shift of subject matter leaving you to wonder how drinkable yogurt fits in with the thirteenth century emperor you’ve been watching.
On any given night you can see 4 or 5 shows with some sort of performance competition or showcase. Sometimes it is herds of primary school children doing syncopated movements with frozen smiles (I have to admit I lingered on this one, contemplating the potential it could have on an American network.)
Other competitions include human beat boxers, Chinese soul singers and MTV style singing dancers pretending to respect the Simon Cowell-style critiques they end up getting.
By far my favorites are the fantasy stories set in ancient times with long robes and intricate headwear, where absolutely anything can happen …. like old grandmothers that kick ass!
I love these stories. i have no idea what they are about but they’re mystical and mythical and they make me want to exercise
But for now, I am in my room in Yangshou where the TV only plays distorted images that look a wet newspaper after it has been put in a blender. So, since there is nothing to watch, I thought I’d tell you about what I have watched.
Since I have no photos to associate with TV, I thought I’d share one I took of a small table that reminded me of how unwilling some people are to throw anything away.