The people of Guizhou province are the friendliest, most hospitable and generous individuals I have ever met in China. This observation is even clearer now that I’m back in Beijing, where everyone snarls at one another. Could be southern hospitality like in the States, though I wonder if I’d ever feel comfortable enough to ask a stranger to use their toilet in Texas…Probably not.
I was hiking down a hill toward a small village in Langdong when typical bouts of stomachache set in — bathroom emergency. The first house my friend, Yoyo, and I came across we asked to use the bathroom. Not only did the grandfather agree to let me let my bowels loose in his home (excuse the graphics!), he also provided generous amounts of toilet paper!! This, being in a place where public bathrooms still charge tourists and everyone carries toilet paper on them at all times (except me because I always forget)! I was so grateful I didn’t even mind the snorting hog in the next pen.
On my way out, the grandfather invited me and Yoyo to stay for breakfast with him and his grandson. We courteously refused — we wanted to witness the process of making handmade tofu at another home in the village — but we sat for a little while.
I was invited to “sit a while” by numerous neighborly strangers throughout Guizhou. I experienced a similar kind of welcomeness in Morocco where I was constantly invited to have tea and stay for free in peoples’ homes. Sometimes yes, the hosts had intentions of making money. But in one of China’s poorest provinces, how could I not buy the handmade batik (wax art on cloth) that the nice lady overcharged my American companion for and then for which she offered me a “local” price? Especially after she voluntarily showed us around her ancient stone village?
Though Guizhou is home to many ethnic minority groups, I spent most of my time in Qiandongnan Prefecture where Miao villages are predominant. We saw people, most noticeably women because of their dress, from other minority groups such as Dong and Gejia, but most were Miao (Hmong).
When I told a Beijinger that I spent time in Miao villages, she remarked that Miao women are very beautiful. It’s true. Miao people have different features from Han (the majority–I’m Han). They have big, deep-set eyes and creased eyelids (now available via a simple surgical procedure), and their skin is darker from the powerful southern sun. Their costumes vary from region to region, as well as by age. In Huangping, for example, older women wear plain, bun-shaped hats while younger women wear more colorful ones. Old women just wrap towels around their heads, and instead of flowery garments, they wear undecorated royal blue robes. In Kaili, Leishan, Langde and Xijiang, women wear their hair in buns on the top of their heads, often supported by black yarn to resemble more hair. They decorate their hair with fake flowers and colorful pins and a special comb, but with different details from village to village.
Photo credit: Judy Manton
(2nd photo credit: Judy Manton)
And how ’bout this fine gentleman sporting a Soviet winter hat in the middle of summer?
Stone Village, Anshun
Whole elaborate outfits are only worn for festivals. Women spend lots of time and money — often thousands and thousands of Yuan — embroidering, sewing, pleating and decorating these garments by hand. A small piece of hand-embroidery is worth hundreds, even thousands, of Yuan because it is so meticulous.
The silver they wear around their necks, on their heads and in their ears weigh a lot. But silver is believed to cast away evil spirits, so people always wear it, most often as a bracelet. Naturally, I bought one for myself. I like to think that the silver not only protects me from evil, but also connects me to Guizhou.
It’s a relief to know that there are still people in China who are kind, un-abrasive, patient, and honest. I’ve been in Beijing for 3 days now and already feel anger and frustration in the pit of my stomach because people here can be so cold, which is ironic because it’s steaming outside.
These past few weeks with Lucia have been some of the best since I began my new life in China. For one, it’s always great to have close friends around. And second, I haven’t laughed so much in months! Too bad the expression “time flies when you’re having fun” is true because she’s gone now.
Between our time in Beijing, we spent 9 days in 3 other cities — Hong Kong, Yangshuo and Guilin. For budgeting purposes, we took trains, buses, and a boat between cities, totaling 66 hours of travel time. It was definitely not a trip you take with a difficult person or a person without a sense of humor. Lucky for Lucia, there wasn’t a moment that I wanted to kill her, except when she ate all the Ferrero Rochers.
One thing I love about traveling is eating as much as I want without worrying about weight gain. In Hong Kong where my mom has excellent connections (the kind with $$), Lucia and I were treated like princesses. We had our own driver, Willie, and we ate like Greek gods. Buffet-ing, dim-summing, seafooding…I literally could not have asked for more or I would’ve keeled over and died from overeating. In Yangshuo and Guilin, no longer royal, we gorged on street food and noodles while avoiding horse and dog meat. The ramen, chocolates, cookies, tea eggs, chips and McDonald’s we ate on train/bus/boat rides were just food for survival.
How did all this food digest you might ask? Well, the 5.5 hour-long bike ride through the countryside of Yangshuo certainly helped (the most exercise either one of us has had in light years). Racing through Ocean Park in Hong Kong and aimlessly wandering around rainy Guilin also made a difference to my digestive track.
Instead of boring you with all the nitty-gritty details of my trip, I’ll just tell you the highlights of each city. You’re welcome.
Far beyond my expectations, this city is just perfect. From the movies (like Rush Hour 2) I thought Hong Kong was just another city. But OH MY WORD the views were incredible!
The jade-colored water between the green hills and the wild monkeys with pink butts and nipples and mansions on hilltops and flowing traffic and random temples spotted throughout the city and beaches, all in one small place. It is a perfect balance of nature and city, traditional and contemporary. Though Hong Kong is known to the Chinese as shopping-haven, Lucia and I preferred the spectacular views and roller coasters. I must admit the most memorable part of Hong Kong, besides the food, was Ocean Park, an amusement park on a hill. We had so. much. fun.
Next up, we took this pimped out sleeper bus which blared house music 8 hours to Yangshuo:
This was my favorite part of the trip. When we stepped out of the bus, half-asleep and worried we’d left something behind after scrambling out of there at 5:30 in the morning, we looked up to find that we were surrounded by pointy hills (karst peaks).
And that’s the center of town! Can you imagine what the countryside looks like?! Well you don’t have to. Just look below!
Those hills plus the Li River equals stunning scenery that is rural China.
Because it was early March when the rains and fog are amidst, there were far less tourists than normal, much to our advantage. Lucia and I could ride our bikes for miles and miles without having to share the road with other tourists. We didn’t take “the road less traveled” — we followed a Lonely Planet route — but it was still the best ride of my life.
As Lucia and I were biking through one of many farm villages, Lucia’s impossible shoelaces got stuck in the gears. It was a heaven-sent pause because out came three little girls running towards us and plopped down with books and pencils in hand. Knowing me, a teacher, kid-lover, and Ms. Emotional-to-anything-slightly-moving, Lucia had to tell me not to cry at the sight of this absurd cuteness. The girl in the middle was reading her English alphabet picture book upside down!
We were also greeted by other kids yelling “HELLO! HELLO! HELLO!” most likely at Lucia, who’s white, but I yelled back too. At one point we took the wrong road and geared off to find a pretty elderly lady with two long grey braids sitting on a bamboo raft by the river as her cows grazed the field nearby. I asked her for directions but it was difficult to understand the local dialect so she walked us to the correct path. She was a beautiful lady, inside and out!
We spent the rest of the time in Yangshuo strolling around and taking in the surrounding beauty. Two days later we were off to Guilin in a boat carrying Chinese and foreign tourists up against the currents of Li River. Along the way, we passed picturesque and widely photographed landscapes. While Lucia spent most of the ride with her nose in Jane Austen with throbbing heartaches for Mr. Darcy, I got wet taking a million photos of the passing views.
Four hours and two bus rides later we were in Guilin.
Well, because Lucia and I were all boated-out, we decided to stay away from the highly regarded boat tours. Instead, we spent most of our time eating and wandering the city center, but our day and a half in Guilin dragged on because of the bad weather. This was the least exciting part of the trip because, surprisingly and much to my disappointment, it was just another city with not much to see except the Sun and Moon Pagodas.
Lucky for me and Lucia, we only had to share our cabin for half the ride back to Beijing, except we arrived 2 hours late in the middle of the night to freezing cold and sleet.
That was my trip in a nutshell. I have much more to tell and show you, but I’ll save it for another time.
Overall, Lucia and I had a fabulous time and I’m sad she’s gone. But I have many good memories and photographs to prove it. I will definitely return to Hong Kong and Yanshuo in the future, but I’ll wait till the weather is nicer. And for you to get here. Anyone up for a 28 hour train ride?
The reason I haven’t been posting/commenting/liking/responding to anybody is because I’ve been busy doing this:
A picture says a million words. I gave you a 5 million word explanation for my absence. I can get really, really, really, really wordy.
Anyhow, Lucia and I will be off to Hong Kong (29 hour train ride) tomorrow, then to Guilin (23 hours back), my momma’s birthplace. We’ll be back in 9 days, simultaneously pooped and refreshed!
Until then, my friends, as the 13 year-old-boy I used to AIM chat with said, “Love, peace, and hair grease”.
(Like my new shades? Got ‘em today during our crazy shopping escapades which I’ll get into later!)
For the past 2 weeks I have been visiting Grandma He and paternal family in Chongqing to celebrate 春節 (Chūnjié), Spring Festival/Chinese New Year (Year of the Dragon!). This was my first Spring Festival, a 15-day celebration (1/15-2/6), in the motherland. In the States, this holiday meant little to me but huge potlucks with our Chinese family friends in Boston, an annual event that sadly diminished as I got older.
The spirit of Spring Festival is equivalent to the entire holiday season back home which explains why the spirit I was missing around Christmas was far but made up for. Red lanterns hung everywhere, businesses offered special 春節 discounts, train tickets sold out, a week off from work, traffic cleared up (AMAZING), bags packed and most everybody was back home with their families, and I with mine.
Spring Festival has a lot of traditions that I don’t think my family keeps to. But the ones we did maintain this year included eating a Reunion Dinner, cringing as we watched the annual Spring Festival Evening Broadcast (6 hours of flashy, cheesy music, dance, and comedy) on TV, exchanging red envelopes ($$$!), eating “rice dumplings” filled with black sesame (nom nom), and setting off fireworks (terrifying). I read in the China Daily that at least 70% Chinese people gain weight over this break, and according to my scale, this is accurate.
We did a whole lot of sitting around this holiday, but that’s part of the tradition: being at home. However, when I wasn’t at home learning how to knit socks with my grandma, stifling her dogs with my love and affection, munching on snacks, playing games on my phone, sniffling because of my cold, and freezing my buttocks off because there’s no indoor heating in the south, I was out and about with my parents, throwing ourselves in the mix of massive crowds. My uncle, a Chinese history professor turned businessman, took us to several awesome places I never knew existed including Dazu Mountain, Longxing Ancient Town, the former Communist Party headquarters in Chongqing, and Baigongguan (Kuomintang’s cruel prison for Communists in the 1940s). We even took a 2 hour train ride to Chengdu, the city with the best food–and pandas–in the world! Don’t you worry, I’ll write more about that trip in another post.
I’m back in Beijing now, 10 degrees colder outside but infinitely warmer and more comfortable indoors, and fireworks are still exploding (quite an annoyance). I have many, many more photos to show you but I’ll post them in installments to keep you comin’ back for more!! I will, however, leave you with this:
If only I had this message written on my wallet, then I might–just might–consume rationally. But it’s so difficult to resist when you walk into
places tourist traps like Ciqikou, an ancient town in Chongqing where everything looks like it should either be hanging on my walls or settling in my stomach (mostly here).
From fresh black sesame candy to sweet globs of sticky rice, how can anybody resist a taste?
And where else am I to find nunchucks and chicken-feather hackey-sacks if not here in the ancient town? Decathalon Sporting Goods? I don’t think so.
At the end of one of the many roads within Ciqikou, I saw the light; the bright, glimmering reflections of useless souvenirs.
One of the exits of Ciqikou overlooks the Yangtze River. Gloomy as that day was, it was still refreshing to be by a body of water.
Strolling along the dock, I came across a particularly ominous but beautiful abandoned bridge that looked very familiar to me. As soon as I took the picture, I remembered why. I had seen an image of this place in an article in the New Yorker.
It didn’t quite feel like déjà vu, but the world felt smaller and I was happy to know that beautiful places we come across in photographs actually exist in the most practical places.
As the course of nature would have it, the food must grow first before we can order it at a restaurant.
Once the food has grown and has been collected, it is transported both locally and to the city. In this case, Kunming. (These photos are from my trip to Yunnan, my mom’s neck of the woods).
Now, we are ready to order from some of China’s finest. Follow these easy steps and you’ll have yourself a most delicious meal!
2) Deliberate amongst family members and/or guests (only one or two people usually decide what to eat for everybody. China’s not a democracy, obviously. Notice below that I am excluded from the ordering process).
3) Find a seat, chat, open your appetite with some tea, and wait eagerly for your food.
And finally, 4) Voila! The meal is prepared!
Just kidding. It looks more like this:
You see! Easy as pie! Cleaning off the plates is even easier! But losing the weight? Not so much.
The Chinese elderly, like children, always seem to find things to do. And they have so much fun doing it! With public parks scattered throughout every city and courtyards in every neighborhood, all you need is a few pals, a thermos of tea, some playing cards or mahjong, some music, and you’ll have yourself a ball!
While the folks above are having fun, others still have to work.
When the retirement age is 55, what else are you going to do?
On the street, a bouquet of nice flowers might cost about 20 Yuan, but at the flower market, it costs about 5. Good deal, eh?