I went to China for a month. It was lots of fun. I visited lots of interesting places, ate lots of tasty food, and learned to speak a little Mandarin.
On January 28th, 2008 I met Molly in Kowloon before noon five days before the full moon. Swoon! We strolled through the park, ate some fruit, and visited a smoky Taoist temple. We took a train to Guangzhou where tens of thousands of Chinese would-be train passengers couldn't get anywhere due to major blizzards. So instead of trains and snow, we flew to Kunming, capital of Yunnan province. Yunnan was sunny and not full of policemen shouting into megaphones in Chinese.
In Kunming we hiked up a mountain, ate radishes as if they were ice cream cones and unfamiliar vegetables with with gusto before visiting Taoist shrines in alcoves on the side of a cliff. We walked around the tourist-focused old city of Dali and biked through rice paddies and a not-tourist-focused village on Lake Erhai. In Lijiang, we stayed with Mama Naxi, an Chinese version of an Italian grandmother to an endless stream of interesting travelers and small animals. Her banana "pancakes" and egg and tomato "pancakes" (really flatbread) give breakfasters enough energy to tourist until dinnertime. We visited Shuhe, Lijiang's more laid back sister, with an artist who knows many of the fun locals. Dancing and playing djembes and fire-tending implements with a Tibetan was a high point of the trip.
Two days before Chinese New Year, Molly and I and around ten other various foreigners (half English teachers) set forth on the two-day Tiger Leaping Gorge trek. Despite chronic back health issues and a winter of not keeping in shape, we walked to Tea Horse Guest House without incident, pausing to take a picture or two of the well-lit Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Our makeshift group enjoyed a dinner with such tasty dishes as curry fried rice and yark pizza before a chilly evening of socializing. The second, mostly downhill day, was more cloudy, so we spent more time walking and less time taking photos. Back in Lijiang, we bought some gifts for friends and family and had a New Year's dinner of auspicious round things.
A forty minute flight (with food service) brought us to Jinghong, the largest town in Xishuangbanna. Je ne sais pas banana pancake, as we affectionately called the tropical region of Yunnan, has lots of unusual fruits, Thai letters on signs, sunshine, and Buddha statues with spikes coming out of their heads. We heard New Year's fireworks go off all night, walked through the botanic gardens, soaked in a hot spring-fed public pool at 10 PM, and ate over half of our meals at a Thai restaurant. We took a very bumpy bus to Damenglong, a dusty farming community. There we watched town elders clean a temple, were invited to some sort of a swap meet with ambient sutra reading, and had a lunch of temple offerings while giving an impromptu English lesson to a monk.
As the last of the queasy feelings left our stomachs, we took a train from Kunming to Guilin. With a sleeper compartment mostly to ourselves, the mollybee and trevorbear had a glorious journey of back rubs, boggle-by-hand, fresh fruit, and spicy ramen. Guilin is at least twice as touristy as Dali and Lijiang, but we met a groovy tea shop proprietor because he liked my beard. Guilin's world-famous scenery was flatly lit under overcast skies, but that didn't stop us from snapping lots of pictures on our Valentine's Day Li River cruise and Chinese tour group extravaganza. We slept in through most of the sunshine in Yangshuo, but enjoyed a short ride on a "bamboo" raft at sunset. The next day we biked to and then climbed Moon Hill, successfully avoiding the persistent ladies selling overpriced drinks, though we were impressed by their persistence, following the tourists up and down the mountain.
We returned to Molly's home in Xiamen, laden with dingle-dangles, instruments, and cans of tea. Before she returned to work, we spent a day soaking in lavender, tea, and curry-infused pools at Ri Yue Gu hot spring. With Molly back at work teaching, I made my way around the city, visiting Xiamen University, South Putuo Temple, Gulangyu island, and the botanic gardens. I taught Molly's 17 high school juniors the locations of major U.S. cities, universities, and natural features on a chalk map I drew freehand. We ate at a wide variety of Chinese restaurant in the cosmopolitan city, with cuisines ranging from Xinjiang to Sichuan to Dongbei to local sea food.
An overnight bus with reclining leather seats took me back to Hong Kong the day before my return flight. I took a ferry to Macau and wandered about, admiring the fusion of colonial Portuguese architecture and churches, Chinese temples, and new casino construction. Apparently I'd been craving bread products in China; my food consumption in Macau was a curry fish roll, an onion pancake, a curry beef crepe, and a waffle. In China, bread comes from minorities: Naxi, Hui, Uyghur, Macanese... The bread was a good investment, securely packing my stomach for the rough return ferry ride; the sound of a hundred Asians barfing simultaneously is remarkably amusing. Back in Hong Kong, I rode the world's longest escalator too far and wandered the confusing streets of SoHo before a tasty Vietnamese dinner. Back in Kowloon I admired the dazzle of Hong Kong Island at night before making my way to a nightclub on Knutsville Terrace. I reflected on the essence of Hong Kong as a band of six Asians did a great version of Play That Funky Music White Boy only to watch the next band do a terrible version of Sweet Home Alabama. I spent the rest of the night in the company of running water and a flock of flamingoes in Kowloon Park, reflecting on my month of new experiences and good company.