Sunday, February 10, 2008

Spring Festival 2008!


你们好!
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Last night, I stumbled into my newly-remodeled apartment (more on this topic in the next blog entry), bag strapped across my back – just as heavy as when I left, add a little, leave a little behind – smelling like, well, someone who hadn't showered in a few days, grizzled and hungry, searching for my bed. Only the best trips result with such a sight and feeling, and I am happy to report, my Yunnan Adventure was a raging and (dare I say) "death-defying" success!
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First, the original plan called for my return to Beibei on the 17th of February, yet here I am, typing to you a few inches away from my space heater with Chinese New Year firecrackers (still) popping outside my apartment. What happened, Phil? The answer is simple for those who have experience this country first-hand. The answer: China. China happened. But for you reading from the good old red, white, and blue, here is my story...
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A little over two weeks ago, I boarded a train for Chengdu (3 ½ hour ride) for Peace Corps IST (In-Service Training). It was great to see everyone again and reminisce about our first semesters teaching and living in China. Experiences were diverse, as expected. Some volunteers, I learned, live very different lives than myself, taking into consideration geography, language-levels of students, varying support from university waiban, pollution indexes, etc. We attended many informative sessions about Chinese language (Practical Menu Reading), Chinese art (a session was conducted with the aid of a Chinese master calligrapher, from which I learned fast is an art I will never be able to master), and Chinese culture (the most informative was given by our PC Director, who, in a strict yet soothing voice assured us that "China, like America, is completely self-assured. It will go anywhere it wants to go..."). PCV had a hilarious open-mic night, inspiring future PC "13" routines for January 2009, and finally, I am happy to report I've moved up in my Language Level to "Intermediate High": a long way from where I want to be at the end of my service, but nonetheless, an improvement. Baby Steps...
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The Main Players:
Matt – A tall, rugged fellow with brain of a calculator and the planning skills of a futuristic war general. His weapon: The Lonely Planet Southwest China Guide Book.
Katie – Matt's wife and lover of all. A teacher (automatically earns high scores in my book) and provider of perpetual positive reinforcement. Her weapon: Her contagious smile.
Eric – An introspective lover of 19th Century English Literature who is highly skilled in the art of kung fu. His weapon: Bamboo Flute and Chinese attire.
Andrew – Master Adventurer (He biked from Olympia, WA to San Diego, CA, before coming to China) and provider of comedic wit. His Weapon: Rock Bar.
Anna – Polish classically-trained pianist and speaker of 200 languages. Her weapon: high-tolerance for Polish jokes and constant reminders of "how great America is."
Phil – Wooer of Chinese women in strange hostels with even stranger Chinese names (DuDu) and lover of the infamous Mama Naxi Banana Pancake. His weapon: Awe-inspiring good looks.
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Before I begin, it helps to follow along with the pictures (to make up for my lackluster descriptive prose). TAG: SpringFestival2008
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The first stop was Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. We boarded a "sleeper train," my first experience on such a vehicle, which looks like a regular passager train from the outside, but inside is composed of 3-shelf bunk beds, just long and wide enough for the average Chinese. I myself fit into those parameters, but Matt and Anna, who approach and surpass 6 feet, had some cold feet. However, it was great. We snacked on instant noodles, air-sealed dofu, and baby oranges, and talked about who we thought would win the Democratic nomination and who he/she would pick as their running mate. The lights go out around 11pm and everyone falls into a deep slumber, packaged like sardines in our huo che (the Chinese term for train, which translates to "Fire Car"– very poetic/appropriate).
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Kunming is a beautiful city; it is probably the most Westernized in all Southwest China. The sky is blue and the air is clean; throughout the trip we consciously took deep breathes in order to "clean out" the residue accumulated after 6 months of Chongqing life, as if we were pulling leaves from neglected gutters. It was in Kunming that we finally started to notice what Spring Festival means to Chinese. To quote our PC Director, "Chinese Spring Festival is the largest migration of people from one place to another, and back, in the entire world." Migrant workers, in search of better wages, leave Southwest China for the East, and Spring Festival is the only time of the year they are able to return to their families. And here we were, 5 Americans and a Pole, right in the middle of their odyssey home. Chaos was inevitable; we were prepared. But there was one thing we weren't prepared for: Mother Nature deciding to drop in and "spice up the pot." In Kunming, we had no way of knowing what was in store for China. It wasn't until we arrived in our next desitination, Lijiang, that we realized the itinerary might need a little tweaking.
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I plan to write a much longer, more specific/organized memoir about my time in China as a PVC when the service concludes, and one aspect of that memoir in which I think Americans would find interesting/absolutely mind-boggling is the means in which Chinese travel. As mentioned, China needs to have substantial transportation as people are steadily moving away from their hometowns for employment and need to return, as it is burned into their value system that family is the most powerful and important priority in life. The sleeper train – comfortable, private (well, as private as China gets), clean and affordable. The sleeper bus, on the other hand, was a very unique experience for us all, as we, unknowingly, purchased tickets for the back of the bus, which, we learned as soon as we boarded the bus, were not the small, stacked bunks that the rest of the riders used to make their way to Lijiang, a 10-hour ride. We were sold tickets for (literally) two beds, 3-persons wide, and, after we stopped laughing uncontrollably, learned it was there that we were going to get to know each other really fast. I slept in between Andrew and Anna, directly under the back wheel. We imagined what this was like for a solo traveler, who would be forced to sleep inches away from a complete stranger, and joked that we would have to pee out of the only window because the bathroom, mysteriously, was locked from the inside. Needless to say, we didn't sleep much, but laughed a lot!
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Lijiang, by far and wide, is my favorite little city in China. We only intended to stay 1 night and peruse the little shops in the Ancient Town as flowing streams of mountain water rush through the neighborhoods, in which different varieties of colorful fish swim against the current and old Naxi women, dressed in their traditional clothes, washed vegetables in the crystal clear, knee-deep xiao he (small rivers). We climbed Elephant Mountain (escaping the 80 RMB surcharge) and felt the thin air as we stepped up and up. Lijiang rests at 2400 meters, significantly higher than Chongqing, so any physical exercise grew steadily more difficult the higher we climbed. We snapped pictures of the city and the sourounding mountains, capped with snow. We thought that was the only snow we would see in Yunnan; my students told me that the weather in Yunnan is hen liang kuai (nice and cool) all year round. Hmmm...
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We boarded a bus to LuGuLu, the largest lake in Yunnan Province, resting high in the mountains at 2700 meters. This would be the starting line for our 2-week hike back to Lijiang. The bus was a standard tour bus, holding about 25 people and our luggage. The ride was beautiful, as we drove in a zig-zagging pattern on roads cut right into the mountains, crossing the Yangtze's clean jade-colored rapids. We inteneded to catchup on some lost sleep on the bus, but few of us could sit still due to the breathtaking scenery and bumpy Chinese cobblestone roads, littered with the debris of previous landslides. The only way to LuGuLu was up and over, and it was there, during the up, that I began to think, "Wow, this really isn't fun anymore..."
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The snow started to appear in small traces. The driver (who I was never able to thank for preserving my life) beeped his horn around every turn, informing (and hoping) other vehicles that he was coming around, blind. At about 3200 meters, a line of cars had stopped, one behind another, as their drivers casually talked and smoked their cigarettes. Our driver, jumping out of the bus, ran around to it’s back and pulled out snow chains and, after about 40 minutes, secured them to the bus’s back wheels. Smaller vans did the same, as the caravan began, up and over, at about 10 MPH. How exciting! Right? If only the vehicles on the road were only going one way. Our driver, who must have been a brain surgeon in a pervious life, drove our bus with superior precision, full of lives from all over the world, over snow-covered edges, weaving inches away from cars on one side and inevitable death on the other. There were no guardrails. There were no guardrails. There were no guardrails.
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At one point, he yelled "xia che!" (Get off the bus!) and all of us needed to start walking. Why? At that time, I had no clue, but a few days later I learned why...
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We finally arrived at LuGuLu and found a hostel to rest for the night. Most of the hostels we stayed at were about 15 RMB/night (roughly 2 USD) and you got exactly what 15 RMB was worth. The bathrooms were most likely outside, 3-4 people per room, and the lone shower was shared by everyone staying at the hostel. Luckily, we supposedly were the only guests staying there (it is the off-season), so the grounds were ours. We crawled into bed and dreamt of the journey in front of us. When we woke up, and the itinerary, in which Matt and Katie spent 2 months preparing was suddenly as good as toilet paper (FYI: About 99% of all bathrooms in China do not supply toilet paper).
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LuGuLu was covered in snow and it was coming down at a phenomenal speed. Our travel plans were to stay with local villagers as each night approached, and suddenly, as we looked at the gear we brought and the windows lined with frost, we decided that a few (significant) changes needed to be made. The hike, for the most part, had to be cancelled, and the plan was, wait till the weather clears and head back, along the same treacherous road, to Lijiang.
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That night I met two fellow English speakers, Jack from London and Alice from Sydney. We decided, after finding little to do in the little town adjacent to the lake, to take a hike 2 hours along the lake's coast to a little tourist town called Lige. There the three of us toured the village and talked about our experiences in China (Jack is a high school teacher and Alice is traveling before she starts medical school in Australia). We talked about our accents and tested a Chinese waitress, who also happened to be an English major at university, which of our accents she liked the most. Winner: British Why? Because it sounds "eloquent" compared to the American/Australian accents' "liveliness" (I think Alice and I got a raw deal because she was a huge fan of the English football team, Liverpool). We ate fish from the lake and sang our respected National Anthems for the restaurant, knowing no one by the waitress would understand the words. This is my life...
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The next morning, Jack headed back north and Alice and I headed back to LuGuLu in attempt to catch the bus back to Lijiang. We took pictures of the sun rising and made it back just in time to hop on the bus. It takes about 6 hours to return to Lijiang (It took us about 8 the first trip). This return venture took slightly longer...by about 5 hours.
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When Jack, Alice and I were sitting around an old metal oven in the center of our hostel’s lobby, warming our feet, I was able to check CNN.com in anticipation for the Super Tuesday Presidential Primaries. There I discovered that on the same day we were traveling to LuGuLu, a bus had "plunged off a slippery mountain road in GuiZhou, killing at least 25 people." "Just Great!" I thought. And now my friends and I were about to brave a similar "slippery mountain road"...again.
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Well, in hopes of detailing this 12+ hour return trip at a later date in a more elaborate piece of writing, I will let the pictures speak for themselves. But I can now answer "yes" to the following questions:
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1) Have you ever been asked to push a tour bus up a snowy mountain?
2) Have you ever wanted to punch a Chinese person because they can't drive a stick shift, concluding you would be a better driver of a tour bus through snow-drenched mountains, albeit knowing you yourself have never driven a stick shift?
3) Has one of your friends been asked to use a rock bar to find dirt under the snow so it could be used under the wheels for traction?
4) Have you ever felt walking is underrated/under-appreciated?
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But we made it. There is a God, I am sure. Prayers were said in those 12 hours - serious prayers. That night, I had a beer before bed. It was delicious - seriously delicious.
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We decided to spend the Spring Festival in Lijiang, which happened to fall on the greatest sister in the world's birthday this year (February 6th). Sad we weren't able to complete our planned 17-mile daily hikes, we decided to venture to Tiger Leaping Gorge for a 13-mile expedition. Talk about further proof of God's existence: Tiger Leaping Gorge, combined with the pure fitness necessary to hike it (there is one section of the trail called “28 Bends” which, more or less is 28 back-and-forth turns almost completely straight up a mountain, taking Andrew, Eric, and I almost an entire hour, along with many breaks for water, Snickers bars, and picture snapping) was one of the most evigorating experiences I have had in China thus far. We dunked our heads in waterfalls, left notes and arrival evidence for Matt, Katie, and Anna who were about an hour behind us, and hiked the entire gorge (with 30 lbs. packs) in almost 7 hours. Our legs were wrecked, calling for us to relax at Tina's Hostel (best baijiu in China), stuff our faces with rice and noodles, marvel in Eric's superior impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger from the movie "Predator" and carry chairs to the hostel's roof were I could see every star in the sky. Solace and introspection for all...
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The tragedy, however, is there is a rumor that the Gorge will be no more in the next few years, as it will be flooded to build a dam and that will produce electricity for millions. Look at my pictures and/or get here and see it yourself, soon, because it might be gone. That is the problem with a country growing as fast as China. It makes you think of all the beautiful, awe-inspiring things we Americans destroyed to be where we are today...the things we never were able to see and have been forgotten in time.
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Spring Festival in China is like Christmas, New Years, and 4th of July wrapped into one: Elaborate costumes, delicious food (I survived off Naxi Bread and the local beer from Dali, Yunnan), and fireworks. Oh, the fireworks. On the 6th, the night sounded as if there was a war outside, as fireworks and crackers popped continuously both in celebration for the New Year (The year of the Mouse) as well as to scare off bad luck and evil spirits. I don't know if fireworks are illegal in whatever state/country you live, but if they are and you have an unquenchable thirst for setting them off, China is your country. Little children light bottle rockets here, with lighters, as their parents are nowhere to be found. Awesome!
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After all was done and celebrated, we decided to fly back to Chongqing from Lijiang. It feels good to be home, sleep in my bed, use my toilet, and all with enough time to complete my plans for the upcoming semester. It will be exciting!
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It was a great second half to my Winter Holiday, as well as a great first Spring Festival in China. Many thanks to Matt and Katie for organizing so much before the trip! Adventure is what I sought, and adventure, even if I only held on/survived by a few inches on a snowy moutain is defintely what I found.
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Devon arrives in a few days. Her and her boyfriend, Nick, spent the Winter Holiday in Vietnam and Thailand, where, she will surely inform me after she sees my pictures, it was nice and warm.
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Let 2008 bring us all health, wealth, happiness, and love...
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Again, Picture Tag: SpringFestival2008
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I love and miss you all,
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Phil

1 comment:

Ashley said...

Hey Phil! Sounds adventerous as always! I miss you so much - I've been reading bits of pieces of your blog when I get the chance....I really miss you. I hope you are well. Everything is wonderful back here!

Ashley