Saturday, June 9, 2012

Dancing by the Lake

We got home from a four-day run through Yunnan last night, a trip that was both fun and a culinary epiphany. Yunnan food is varied and almost uniformly spectacular: walnut flour noodles, rice noodles curled in little spirals like edible crepe paper, baked goat cheese, mushrooms of every variety, pureed corn soup, thinly sliced pigs ears, and cilantro dotting so many dishes. Heaven. Especially the goat cheese.

The other revelation was seeing a part of the country that had actual ethnic minorities, not the ones who dress up in some kind of costume to entertain strollers at a Beijing park, but ones who wear their bright scarves, belts with trinkets hanging from them, and embroidered shirts even as they labor in the rice fields, labor at construction, labor to fix us lunch, and careen along winding mountain roads on motorcycles. I wasn't there long enough to be able to tell the difference between the food or dress of the Yi, Hani, Dao, or other minorities, but I still enjoyed smiling at babies strapped in colorful back slings or tooling along in tiny wicker strollers.

One of our favorite spots was a city called Geijou, described in the books as a tin mining town that surrounded a lake that had been created by some sort of mining mishap. Some other Google searches mentioned something about drinking water also being poisoned by bad mining practices. Not the best sales job, but I learned to trust our charming tour guide Frank, who had lived in Yunnan for five years and had biked many hundred kilometers of it.

When we had checked into our hotel, the one with beds as hard as sheet rock, we took a stroll around the lake before dinner. It was around 6, which meant that it was the perfect time for the Italian passegiatta, and about the same time as the Chinese after-dinner stroll.

It wasn't long before we realized that we were going to be the evening's entertainment for many of the people along the lake. We passed a small amusement area, where Bob heard a mother say to her toddler, "look honey, laowai!" the way we might point out a passing giraffe at the zoo to our own offspring.

A few steps later and we passed a tall man sitting on a bench. "Hello!" he said with some surprise. We said hello back and before we knew it he was strolling along with us and chatting up Frank, who speaks Chinese. In fact, the longer we walked, the more of an entourage we seemed to gather, folks who decided that they needed to join the procession to see just what kind of excitement these foreigners might bring. We were the Pied Pipers of Geiju.

Our escort, named Loam, anointed himself the official guide to all things Geiju. He had very particular ideas about what we should or should not do. No, don't buy those figs for sale on the sidewalk; there are better ones in Yuanyang. When we stopped to check out the men who were spinning these large metal tops by whipping them with whips, he tried to keep us on the path. When he saw we were determined to watch this, he grabbed a whip from one of the guys and gave it to Bob, and gave another one to Caleb. Both tried enthusiastically whipping the tops, which they claimed was harder than it looked.

Next we spied a group of 60 or so women doing a line dance. Since I've been in China I've wanted to try to learn some of the steps, and with the courage brought by Anne (a woman who is not shy, ever), and Cynthia (a former dancer), I got out there. It was a blast, and when two songs were over, the women all stopped and applauded. As this was happening, Loam kept calling out, "hello! Hello!" and waving us on.

So we moved on to a bigger dance party further along the lake path. This one had about 100 women. Loam beckoned us to the front of the line and commandeered the entire event. He stopped the music, there was some back and forth about the next song and then we were all dancing again. These were harder dance steps so I was concentrating too much to realize that a giant crowd had gathered, people crowding the lakeshore to see the three women dance folk line dances with the other women. I looked up to a sea of smiling, shocked faces. Bob said it was the same kind of expression we might have if we encountered a talking dog on our evening stroll: shock and delight.

After two songs we stopped, and there was applause all around again. At this point I felt more stared at than I have been in a long time. Since these were not unfriendly stares, it was okay, but intense, like being in the sun for a few minutes too long. If I can ever get the video evidence of this loaded, I will need to explain that while it may look as though I was totally out of step with the other dancers, it's just an optical illusion. I nailed those dances.

We invited Loam to join us for a drink before dinner, but he waved us off again, wished us a good trip, and went on his way. Frank later told us that he was a police sergeant, something that his military bearing, short hair, and ability to hold off cars with one arm raised in the air as he crossed the street seemed to prove.

Our dinner that night was in a "French cafe" that served a spectacular array of Yunnanese food and not a baguette in sight, but it was a fitting end to an evening that represented the kinds of things I love about China. There were plenty of things not to love on this trip: major roads under construction, airline delays, some stomach issues (probably my fault for eating unwashed grapes), and the general hassles of travel in China, but overall it was a very good time.

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