Monday, August 27, 2012


So I have a crush on a fellow named Optimus Prime. He has big brown eyes and likes me (I think) because I gave him a fancy apple.

OP (he didn't ask me to call him that, but I could tell he kind of liked the nickname) is a champion fighting bull, Yunnanese style. The way bullfighting is done in these parts of the world is quite different from what I know of bullfighting elsewhere, with its blood and gore and Hemingwayesque characters and death of critters who did nothing wrong but happened to be born bulls.

In Yunnan, bulls fight each other and the match is determined by which bull runs off first. When we went to Yunnan to see this phenomenon, I have to say I was both surprised and pleased that this kind of fighting was far less bloody and lasted sometimes only seconds.

The town of Damogu in northeast Yunnan has a kind of natural amphitheater, surrounded by the craggy volcanic rocks the region is known for. Spectators perch on the rocks or dangle their legs over the wall built around the pit where the bulls fight.

On our first day of bullfighting, we watched a good four hours. Organizers started with the less fierce bulls. Two bulls would be led into the arena. The first few bulls needed a certain amount of prodding and whipping to goad them into charging each other. Even when they did, you had the sense that they weren't fully engaged in the spectacle. Quite a few of them saw a mud pit in one corner of the arena and ran right over there to roll around in the mud like a puppy off the leash. Others, left to their own devises, would stick their noses up in the air sniffing and studiously ignoring the other bull four feet from them, until out of the blue, one bull would turn in an instant and butt the other guy. Sometimes that would result in a head butting battle with locked horns (so many cliches come from bullfighting!) but more often, one bull would suddenly charge away from his opponent, losing in an instant. Once when two bulls of unequal size were matched, the smaller bull took one look at the behemoth in front of him and took off in a gallop. Can't say I blame him.

What's also fascinating is the number of wirey young men who watch all this from the pit itself. Their main job is to stop the winning bull from continuing to charge the loser: the minute one bull runs off, the match ends. But sometimes the winning bull seems to want to make a further point and continues to gallop after the loser, both of them panting and splashing through the mud in the hot august sun. The men chase after both bulls with nothing but a rope and a hook to capture the bulls. Some of them end up sailing along with a tenuous hold on the horns, Chinese cowboys.

At today's event the crowd is enormous. A woman with a fur-trimmed fake black leather jacket, high heeled sandals, and black three quarter leggings that end in lace sits under a parasol next to me on a hill overlooking the arena. When her baby cries she lifts her black top and sticks a nipple in his mouth.

 I sit under a parasol too, but the day is still blazingly hot.

The highlight of the day was OP. And he was well worth the wait. Before OP fought, his handlers threw a red blanket over his back and he became the Muhammed Ali of bulls. As he walked majestically down from his prime shaded waiting area, the crowd began a low roar. And unlike other bulls who had to be goaded into fighting under the blazing Yunnan sun, OP burst through the gate like a freight train, throwing off his handlers and his blanket in one stride and charging toward the other bull like he hated him. The first bull he fought, number 3, met OP's challenge for a split second and then turned tail and raced around the arena with a look of terror on its brown face. I had never seen one of these majestic creatures look frightened, but 3 galloped several laps around the arena with his tounge hanging out and his eyes rolling, outrunning all the wranglers who were racing to catch him.

The second match was much like the first -- gate opens, charging bull heads straight for the other bull standing there minding his own business, and it's all over in seconds. I kept waiting for OP to say he could float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.

Meanwhile, some perspective. I've been baking at the bullfights since 1 that afternoon, and even with a pink parasol, a wide brimmed hat with a pink ribbon and bow, sunglasses, sunscreen, and plenty of water, I had had it. So when I heard that OP was fighting three more times, I bailed on Bob and his entourage of videographer, translator, and all-around-fixer. Sorry, OP. I knew you didn't need me there to cheer you on.

I went back to the restaurant where we had had lunch. It was packed with diners, so I convinced the staff to sell me a large and COLD bottle of beer, which I took outside and sat on the steps, drinking. It's hard to overstate just how much attention a laowai in a pink bonnet, purple tee shirt, and bright pink face attracts when she grabs that bottle of beer and sits on the stoop drinking.

When I first sat down on the dusty stoop, I was alone, but soon I was surrounded by people who had finished their dinner and left the restaurant. The children were the bravest, and they ran by me again and again peering curiously at me as I read and typed on my iPad. But the others got braver as time passed, and they casually strolled by me on my stoop, glancing over my shoulder as I typed. I'm used to being stared at in the rural areas of China. As Bob said, they've seen bulls before. They probably haven't seen many foreigners.
Later I hear that OP has taken down all the competition and even rolled a few hapless fellows. Losing bulls are often sent to the slaughterhouse, I’m told, so although there isn’t the same amount of visible gore (unless you count the severed donkey’s head I saw at one donkey-meat stand on the way into the arena), it’s still a life and death kind of situation. I’m still glad I saw the spectacle, which also included a woman with bound feet picking her way through the crowd, a poor pensioner begging our leftover cold noodles, the sight of giant horned bulls grazing peacefully amongst the throngs of people, and a ten-year-old smoking a cigarette with the aplomb of John Wayne. And, of course, one more opportunity to look ridiculous in hats.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

When All Else Fails, There's Beer

Today was one of those days. Rachel, Nora, and I wanted to check out a wholesale market that sounded cool, so we agreed upon a time and gathered in front of Rachel's apartment building to hail a cab, baby Leah in the snuggly in front of her mom.

But finding a cab turned out to be an exercise in frustration. We found a couple of cabs all right, but both drivers shook their heads adamantly when we told them where we wanted to go. Too much traffic. After about 20 minutes, Nora said, let's just go get a beer. So we decamped to a new German restaurant and sat with some good beer for a while.

Later in the day, I had made plans to go dragon boating with Jan. The lake is also a bit far from home and practice was supposed to start after work at 7:30, so we just had to get there in time. But for the second time that day, finding a cab was an exercise in frustration. This time, every cab we saw was already taken. One guy started to pull over but veered back into the street, causing me to yell a few choice words at the guy not wanting to bother with foreigners.  After 45 minutes of watching the traffic weave and dart and speed its way through an intersection, we agreed: let's just go have a beer.

So we sat at another outdoor bar and watched the Chinese couples out celebrating Qixi, Chinese Valentine's day. The girls were all dressed to the nines, tottering on impossibly high heels and wearing diaphanous dresses lined with sequins, while their boyfriends slouched alongside in shorts and tee shirts. Balloon sellers with enormous bundles of heart shaped balloons walked past while men chased down cabs holding bouquets of red roses, having more success than we did.

This city is hard. And expecting to go somewhere but being prevented by traffic, surly cab drivers, a limited subway system, and a sprawl that makes DC look like my backyard can make me crazy at times. And then I realize I'm drinking a beer with a friend while a man rides by on a bike with a tiny dog in a mesh backpack on his back, and I just laugh.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Sleeping on the Great Wall

I had climbed the Great Wall many times in the last ten months, and each of those moments was remarkable in its own way. Last weekend, though, was something new: camping on the Great Wall. My former Roll Call colleague, Dan Newhauser, was visiting, and this was the only available group hike I could find.

I’m glad I did it. The hike started out in the village of Chenjiapu, past a military installation. We immediately started heading uphill. Those folks unfamiliar with climbing the Great Wall should note that the Wall is on the top of the mountains, and there’s only one way to get up there. We scrambled up and up in the hot late-afternoon sun, carrying our overnight items and many bottles of water on our backs. I had a newfound appreciation of Bob’s previous job – I usually didn’t have to carry a backpack. I think mine weighed about 20 pounds and it kept throwing me off balance. I did try to chug water every time we stopped, figuring it weighed less in my stomach than on my back. Our tents, sleeping bags, and other camping gear were being carried up by a very unhappy looking donkey.

But we made it and were immediately treated to warm beer and a nice barbecue – grilled corn, corncakes, fish balls, tofu, lamb, chicken. 

As the evening darkened we set up our tents and watched the stars come out. Our guides, Andy, Kathy, and Namchen, turned out to be quite the entertainers. I hadn’t even believed that Kathy was joining us on the hike. While the rest of us looked like advertisements for LL Bean, with our hiking boots, khaki pants, and ratty hats, Kathy was a typical blinged-up Chinese girl: hot pink leggings, pearl drop earrings, full makeup, a giant glittery ring, and what looked like boat shoes. Yet she climbed the mountain like the rest of us. And later, Kathy pulled off another big surprise: she performed a traditional Chinese dance in flowing robes and a fan – who knew she had schlepped a complete change of costume up the mountain? Namchen sang a couple of haunting acapella Tibetan songs, his voice echoing off the mountain in the dark. Then we played card games, told stories, and eventually turned in.

It was cold. I had no idea that a midsummer evening could be so cold. Several of us decided that if we were going to camp on the Wall, we would camp ON the Wall, even as the wind picked up and it was a challenge to peg down our tents in the brisk air. Even when the tents were firmly tacked to the concrete-hard ground on the Wall, the wind blew so hard that the tent made flapping and rustling noises that sounded like someone or something – a wild panda? A dragon? A Mongolian invader? – trying to get into the tent.

But that wasn’t the reason I couldn’t sleep. I’m not much of a camper, but I think even the veteran campers agreed with me. It was cold, and the ground was hard. I turned on one side. Hip aching, I turned on the other side. Then I tried lying on my back, all the while trying to limit my exposure to the air.

Morning came eventually, and at about 5, I opened my tent flap to a glorious pink sunrise. No one else was up, and I selfishly kept quiet for a while so I could enjoy its beauty in silence and peace. The rest of the campers in the dip alongside the Wall were probably warmer in the night, but I had the advantage of greeting the day first. What’s a little lost sleep compared to a moment like this?
 Later, when I came home, I tried explaining to my ayi that I had been hiking the Great Wall. "Too hot!" she said to me in Chinese, and proceeded to scold me that there were four months one should not hike the Great Wall. I tried to explain that my friend wanted to see the Wall but she wasn't having it. She brought us warm water and left the apartment tisk-tisking. Meanwhile, I was just happy that I mainly understood her scolding. There's more than one way to measure progress in this country.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time

Breakfast in Yunnan
So many China moments start with the best intentions. Last weekend was a good example of how what seemed like an adventure and a beyond-creative way to mark our 30th anniversary turned into something else.

Let's start with the fact that after a lovely dinner out, Bob and I went to bed knowing we had to get up at 4:30 for this trip. But I knew there were editors in America who were working on something I had written. So when I woke up at 2:30, I checked my email. Two hours later, I was still at it. Dear editors on the east coast of the United States: just add 12 hours. Please.

Anyway, we headed off to Yunnan where I had agreed to accompany Bob on a trip. We had to drive over bone-jarring roads. ( Note to Caleb and Cynthia and Anne: the Yunnan roads we traveled in May were not an aberration.)

Then I watched Bob in action doing interviews. From what I could tell, no question went unasked. I was operating on two hours of sleep. I had had goat for dinner. I came dangerously close to falling apart. Some might say my threats to hire a driver to take me to the Kunming airport and leave that very evening argue that I did indeed fall apart. But 30 years of marriage means that Bob recognizes my tendency toward empty threats.

Anyway, after a very good night's sleep I woke ready to face the day, which was good because I needed some energy for this day. We began with a breakfast of rice noodles and other assorted things, made not too "la," spicy, for the foreigners. Frank, bless him, travels with instant coffee, which he happily supplied. Frank, on a side note, was our guide for our last Yunnan trip and a BFD in these parts. All the Chinese call him Flan-ke, and this adventure would not have been possible without Flan-ke. Thank you, I think.

Then a day in the hot sun. I'm leaving the details intentionally vague. There will be more later.  I can say it was quite the festival atmosphere, with vendors selling all sorts of food and plastic toys. I don't know how a big fat donkey head, freshly separated from the rest of him, serves as a draw for a stand selling what I would have to assume is donkey meat. But this is how I know I'm not in Kansas. My having goat for dinner was quite enough. In fact after that, I annointed myself a vegetarian for the rest of the weekend.

Maybe it was the sight of a goat being slaughtered as we lingered in town. The line between living animals and dinner is far thinner in these parts of the world.

After the sun got too much for us, we left, only to find our van completely blocked in by cars and the parking guy not especially concerned that we were trapped. Since being stuck in uncomfortable spots was turning out to be a theme of the weekend, it seemed totally appropriate. We hired a van to take us to our hotel. All I wanted at that point was a cold beer. I settled for warm water in the room; I didn't have the energy to venture out for more than that.

Later, I had my beer, so the day ended well. The next day brought more beer and a torch festival...something for the record books. Stay tuned for a story of ashes.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Lingering Dragons

Here's a little more evidence of our dragon boating exploits. Now, we're off to Yunnan again. Hoping we don't encounter mudslides.

The group, after on-stage dancing

Heming and I dance, and the room did feel a little sideways.
The meiguoren hold the team flag.
So tired.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Look What I Found!

A giant bag of freshly made pasta, for 4 RMB -- about 62 cents. I may not make pasta again for a long time.
And if this appears upside down, remember. I live in China.