Friday, June 29, 2012

What Friends Are For

When I was having one of my lonely days in our first few months of living in China, I would amuse myself by imagining I was walking through the streets with a friend. What would he or she see? What would be surprising? It was a way to have an imaginary friend keep me company and a way to train myself to see things with as fresh an eye as possible.

You think you’ll never get jaded about experiencing the kaleidoscope of colors, sights, sounds, smells, and textures that is Beijing in 2012, but there are plenty of days when – if I do venture outside the door – I want to keep my head down and focus on not killing myself by stepping into big holes in the pavement, looking up only when a car or scooter is bearing down on me.

And then we had real friends visit. Our first group was our traveling buddies Anne, Caleb, and Cynthia. We’ve slogged through the mud in the Auvergne region of France with them, making up silly songs and nearly getting run over by a loose bull. We’ve drunk so much wine in the Mendoza region of Argentina that I thought my head was going to explode inside our charming cabin in the eco-resort. We’ve done the Walk of the Gods at the peak of the Amalfi coastline, traipsing across stones from the Roman Empire and rewarding ourselves with magnificent feasts in Positano afterwards. We’ve celebrated Anne’s birthday in Miami, in a chilly January where outdoor heaters allowed us to be as rowdy as we wanted without disturbing (too much) other guests. We’ve celebrated (with Dagmar too) the end of my radiation treatments at the Inn at Little Washington, where balloons dotted the ceiling of our little space. We’ve hiked the hills around Boulder, eating in restaurants that served five different kinds of salt and imagining that we could all live there one day on a senior hippie compound.

And now it was China’s turn. And even though China is the kind of place where you really really don’t want to order wine with dinner or where finding a place to get a real gin and tonic became a nearly futile quest, we still had a great time. And my real friends did exactly what I imagined my imaginary friends doing. They marveled at the daring it takes to cross a road. They squealed with delight at the bizarro treats available in the Wu Mart, our local Chinese grocery store, wanting to buy everything in sight. Anne stopped at every round-faced cherub she encountered, succeeding in making nearly every baby she came across in China burst into tears at the vision of this blonde-haired, extremely enthusiastic laowai who was in their face. 

Not long after they left, Susan and Rachael graced us with a visit, and it was the same kind of thing again. Susan could not believe our luck in being able to take what we call the carbon-monoxide mobiles, these metal-enclosed three-wheeled vehicles that serve as a backup plan when taxis are not available. She marveled at the buildings, at the smells, at the sounds. Walking through a crowded train station – Beijing West – on the eve of the Dragon Boat Festival was an experience unlike any other. Rachael, on a visit from South Africa, had an equally delighted reaction to the expat grocery store, Jenny Lou’s, where she bought potato chips, Snapple, M&Ms, and Sweet-Tarts.

Thanks to our friends, we were able to refresh ourselves and see China through their eyes. I enjoyed taking their hands as they crossed the streets with me, watching out for speeding objects that could come from any direction.

There are certain requirements for visiting, of course: You need to be able to handle a squat toilet. You can’t expect to order wine with dinner. You may sleep on a bed that feels like sheet rock. You may ask, “what is the difference between this fish and that one?” and get the answer, “yes.” But it’s worth it for the adventure. And even though I’m perfectly content to continue to enjoy my imaginary friends and how they would see various sites in the future, the real thing is pretty special too.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Once More to the Wall

This past weekend we visited the Wall again. This time it was the Wild Wall, so named by William Lindesay, the man who has done much to
chronicle, preserve, and chart the Wall for the past 30 years or so. An affable Brit with a Liverpool accent that makes it feel just a bitlike you're hiking with the Beatles, Lindesay leads tours of the Wall
that specialize in sunrise vistas that few people get to see.

We took a van out to the countryside past Mutianyu on a hot Friday afternoon, eventually getting past the rush hour traffic and into green mountains dotted by  fishing resorts set up for Chinese tourists who seem to be more interested in eating fresh fish and riding
motorbikes than in hiking one of the earth's great treasures.

We got to Lindesay’s place, a former school barracks that still retained the rustic feel that is typical of much of China: rooms around a central courtyard with some scraggly bushes and a well. After an enormous dinner, we went to bed around 8:30.

Lindesay woke us up at 3, and we set off in the dark with flashlights and jackets, chilled in the mountain air. We climbed a wooded route on a dirt-packed path, and as we climbed and the day gradually lightened,
we saw shapes on the mountain: the guard towers that dot the Wall like so many square knots.

Finally there was the Wall, stretched out and
golden in a sunrise that mixed clear blue sky with a few scattered clouds and a sun so orange it seemed unreal. It was the kind of vista that makes you gasp. Last year I wrote an essay for the Christian
Science Monitor about how this same sunrise trip helped me to decide to move to China.

Lindesay had been giving us slices of history of the Wall and its people as we rested on our ascent. As we continued to scramble over rocks, up what is called the ox bow, the sun rose and got hotter, but the air was still dry and clean. One of the silver (or gray) linings to living in a polluted country is the newfound appreciation of every single day when the air is clear, the breeze is refreshing, and the land is green.

An added delight on this trip was taking our friends Susan and Rachael. Joanna and Rach have been pals since elementary school and have an easy companionship that matches my own long friendship with
Susan. Double bonus: their delight and astonishment at all things Chinese. (In fact, the delights of showing China to friends -- Anne, Caleb, Cynthia, Susan, Rachael -- will be the subject of another blog post soon.)

It's a hard hike for knees, a scramble up something so steep you have to keep your head about a foot from the Wall angling up in front of you, and then down through rubble, stepping on rocks that once formed
the great structure that helped to protect the Chinese from Mongolian and other nomadic invaders and that now were strewn by weather and time and neglect into tripping hazards.

And on the second day, we did it again, this time going in a different direction on the Wall, and also getting to see vistas that made us gasp. It was worth getting up at 3 to see all this, even if I did pay the price in fatigue on Sunday by losing my cell phone not once but twice.

The second time was a permanent loss. Said the adorable Yoli, the WSJ assistant who helped us get the phone back the first time: “there is a Chinese word called "缘分(yuan fen)", which is a very subtle word that almost doesn't translate--it means a certain chemistry, fate or innate I guess the Nokia phone kind of lack such 缘分 with its master.” She also advised me: “Get a new phone that's more emotionally attached to you.”

So that’s what I’ll do. Maybe the old phone was just jealous over my relationship with the Wall. Or maybe it didn't want to belong to a human who clearly specializes in dorky looks on the Wall.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

More Fun With Transportation

I like to think that the longer I live in China, the more open I am to different forms of transportation (except riding a regular bike, which will never ever ever happen again).

For instance, I'm open other wheeled vehicles, like my friend Lesley's electric bike. Okay, so it looks like a motorcycle and she wears a helmet when she rides it, but she assures me it's an electric bike. (And yes, for those of you who know the story of my motorcycle accident, I know I may have said I'd never ride a motorcycle again, but I'm sticking with the it's-just-an-electric-bike story.) I've ridden on it twice now, and I feel both safe and excited. The first time I got a ride we were zipping through the hutongs near Houhai lake, weaving around pedestrians, carts, bikes, and so on. The second time she gave me a ride home from bowling and we zipped along the street, scooting past buses, cars, bikes. Easy!

Today I moved to a new form of transportation: the pedicab. These are souped-up electric bikes that tow a red seat with a red awning, most often used to take tourists through the lanes of hutongs. I needed to get to the American Embassy today and didn't have the patience to wait for a cab. What the heck, I thought. Should be fun. The driver very smilingly charged me twice what I would have paid in a cab, but I figured I was paying for the novelty of it as well.

It was wild (and again, if I can ever succeed in uploading videos, I'll show you), but the guy dropped me off at the wrong gate of the embassy. I finally found the right gate, and did what I needed to do, and decided to walk home. It's a pretty walk along the canal, and it was a nice day. Okay, so the air was "unhealthy" but it could have been worse. It could have been "very unhealthy" or "hazardous."

Then, on my walk home, I saw this.
 An old woman on an electric bike was hit by a very large bus. When I passed by, I believe I saw the woman sitting inside the bus, and her things were still scattered all over the road. I'm going to believe that the bike rider was in the bus. Did I hear any ambulances approaching? No, just some policemen picking up her sunglasses and hat and traffic carefully moving around the scene.

I don't know for sure if it means I'll think twice before I get on an electric bike again, but it was a harrowing sight.

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.