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Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Peace, Apples, Yaks, and Corruption

March 10-15. Five days has passed since I have written a blog post. During this time only 3 large events, worthy enough to be written about I mean, have occurred. I won’t describe each day, because it might bore you into a deep sleep, but I will share each happening chronologically as well as some minor experiences with you. I also wanted to explain why I haven’t updated everyone on each day as I had done in New Zealand and Fiji. Not every day is as large of an adventure as it was last month, but it is an adventure none the less. There is a peace in China, which I am grateful for, that did not exist in New Zealand and trying to communicate that peace through words would be near impossible, I think. I don’t understand it myself, but the peace comforts me and provides me with the time to observe my surroundings. I also must confess that I possessed little desire to blog in the past few days and, not wanting to write something I wasn’t proud of, I followed my instincts. If that weren’t enough, I am still sick since March 9. I still wretch after certain meals, however it is infrequent and my joints aren’t in constant pain.
The last 2 days of class, before the weekend, went without any notable incidents. During my off hours, I read my Lord of the Rings Trilogy book and walked about town. I don’t bother with the shops anymore; I have bought souvenirs for all my friends and family. Mostly, I observe the people, the differences between my customs and theirs, and the environment. Plugging in my headphones, I walk down the endless road of Old Dali. Instead of using my sense of sound, I use my eyes and nose to discover aspects about the town. As I watch the shopkeepers working on their crafts outside their shops, I can smell the fresh sweetbread being pulled out of the oven across the street. The inroad river tumbles across the rocks, while cigarette smoke forms clouds around me. And as old women badger me, asking if I “smoke the ganja”, cheap incense palpably lingers, trying to counteract the cigarette smoke. The list goes on and on. It isn’t a complete experience without being able to hear my surroundings, but I feel they would distract me from the niceties. The hawking of people about to spit, the constant drum of hammers striking anvils, music blaring from all directions, and the honking of car horns all around me are quite unappealing in my opinion. Even the garbage truck, which plays an ancient Chinese melody to tell people to put out their garbage, has lost its splendor.
The last night before the weekend, we decided to spend our night at a local, western café near the University. We had heard it was one of the most fun places to be on a weekday. We arrived to see it packed with people, all playing board games or PlayStation. It wasn’t what some people would call “a night out” because they didn’t serve beer and there wasn’t a woofer pounding in your ear, but it was fun none the less. Christen, David, and I met up with several kids from the U.S. whose parents, on a whim, had packed up one week and moved to Old Dali to run this café. It was strange to actually have a normal conversation with people you didn’t know intimately, but it was a welcome change. Amanda, Johnny, and Brittany were all our age and Ben and Henry were several years younger. They seemed as pleased as we were to spend time with people from back home. After several hours of Apples to Apples, we were already making plans to hang out again. The café also had a baking class on Thursday at 7pm, which we all eagerly signed up for. We relished any opportunity to keep ourselves busy during off hours. Only at 1am were we forced to leave the comfortable coffee shop and head home for the night.
So when the weekend was upon us, Erik suggested that we take a trip to Lijiang, a town about 3 hours away from Old Dali. I wasn’t yet bored of Dali, but I was more than willing to see other Chinese towns. At 9am the next morning, we were being swept away on a train towards Lijiang. I didn’t expect the train to be luxurious, but I didn’t expect it to be from the 1970s either. The paint was peeling, there were cramped compartments with small beds as seats, and the bathrooms reeked as if they had not been cleaned since the day they had been made. When I surfaced from the train station, green faced and wobbling, a cab driver greeted me and drove us to Meadow Lodge, where we would be staying for the night. I slunk into the bed as I slammed my backpack down, but Leung was there as quick as a flash. He ripped off the covers from my body and in a stern tone informed us that we were going to lunch. Against every instinct of my being and with my body fighting the movements, I shuffled out of bed and went downstairs.
The streets in Lijiang reminded me of the streets of Venice. They were cramped and windy. Even a small river of water ran the length of the roads. Shops clustered the sides and it was obvious that Lijiang caters specifically to tourists, even more so than Old Dali. Since Lijiang is near mountains, they pride themselves in their herding of Yaks. Instead of ice cream shops, there are Yak meat corner markets and Yak yogurt is advertised everywhere. I didn’t have the stomach to try the meat, but the yogurt was extremely tasty. The same goods that are found in Old Dali can be found in Lijiang, so there was no need to buy anything. Our time was better spent wandering the crowded streets and seeing several spectacular sights that were exclusive to Lijiang. The mountains held an ethereal beauty when set against the background of this busy tourist town. Chinese Plum Blossoms litter the streets, adding to the attractiveness. In the town square, there were several local men garbed in mountain clothing and riding horses packed with pots, pans, sleeping bags, and a musket. They were clearly there for tourists to take pictures with them, but they were still entertaining to watch. Other people try to take advantage of the tourist’s eagerness to spend money by allowing you to hold an eagle or play with a monkey, which you must pay for of course.
Before we knew it, dinner was upon us. Nobody wanted western food, except me, and I wasn’t going to be the odd man out for this meal. Coming across a street lined with food we all took our pick and made our own combinations. I went for 3 pieces of sizzling bacon with savory spices, a freshly baked roll of bread, miniature skewered eggs, and a bag of seasoned almonds. It was all delicious and I ate it down to the last crumbs of the almonds. After dinner, we walked down the “Red Light District” of Lijiang. All the bars were packed with people. We sat down at the most “American friendly” bar and the others ordered drinks. We thought it was “American friendly” because it played the most modern music, where the others played club music from back in the 1990s. It seemed that we were the celebrities of the bar because countless people asked to take pictures with us asked us all to dance. However, we ended up clearing the dance floor due to our more modern dances. I don’t know if the locals were impressed or disgusted by our moves, it was hard to make out their expressions, but we had fun all the same. At 12am we walked back to the room, exhausted from the night’s events and eager to lie in our comfortable, heated beds (every bed that I have slept in so far has had a heated blanket).
I didn’t sleep much that night. I became violently sick again, probably because of dinner. Nobody else reacted the same, so maybe it’s just my own body. I barely slept that night and in the morning, I was beyond exhaustion. I wanted something substantial in my stomach, so I ate 2 enormous pancakes and munched on fruit for breakfast. Our train left at 11am and it was tough to remember the ride. I was slightly disoriented and slept most of the time.
The next day we had class and I was looking forward to it, specifically the afternoon session. We planned to hike to a waterfall with our teacher and her friend. Supposedly, it was a 30 minute hike from the school. We, however, spent over 4 hours trekking the mountain behind the university in search of the waterfall. We began the hike at 2pm, immediately after lunch. We walked uphill towards the Tea House, where we had spent our first few nights in Dali. The teacher wasted no time and put us to the test, making us converse with her in Chinese. Effortlessly, we came to the back of the Tea House and found the path up the mountain. There was a guard stationed at the entrance. His only job was to make sure that we signed a sheet of paper saying that we had visited during the specific time. I believe it was in case someone came looking for us, so they could prove we had passed through that side of the mountain.
The hike began leisurely, with a slight uphill walk through the forest. We passed countless graves, extravagantly decorated with red and gold dragons and beautifully neat Mandarin writing. Rushing water could be heard close by and soon we came to the river. We thought we had come to the waterfall, but all we could see were tiny cliffs that made water fall 3 feet to the ground. That couldn’t be it we reasoned and kept walking. As we kept on marching, our teacher described many aspects of the forest to us in Mandarin, but I could only understand fragments of her speech. Occasionally she would joke with her friend, while Christen, David, and I would exchange clueless expressions. After about an hour however, we lost sight of the graves and the path became windy and treacherous. It sometimes sloped at a possible 75 degree angle, forcing us to climb the path as if it were a ladder. Our teacher gave up trying to teach us Chinese, but I doubt she could have continued if she had wanted to. We panted with the effort of climbing the mountain and our faces glistened with sweat. Our minds were bent on reaching an opening in the tree line, where we would see the fruits of our efforts. After another hour of hiking we came to a large, paved road meant for walking around the mountains. It was glorious to see how far we had hiked. We weren’t 300 feet from the top and the whole landscape, from the mountains across the lake to the undeveloped villages surrounding Dali was open to us.
Walking slowly, I enjoyed every breath of fresh air and every mile I could see, which I valued as much as a gleaming gold trophy. As we all blissfully stared out in the open, policemen on bikes surrounded us. Only after they spoke to us did we realize they were there. Angrily, they asked what we were doing up here. Our teacher and her friend explained that we were hiking. Then one man yelled at our teachers and went off in a rage. Our 2 parties went back and forth and Christen, David and I looked at each other in alarm. After 20 minutes of frantic bantering, our teacher handed the policeman 50 yen and he handed us 5 blank pieces of paper which he had stamped with the date. Then, as suddenly as they had arrived, they sped off. Our teacher later explained to us that the policeman were asking if we had tickets allowing us to climb the mountain and after noticing that we didn’t he refused to let us go back down without payment. She told us it was a trick, meant to siphon money from foreigners and you needed no tickets to climb the mountain. It was the first time I had witnessed corruption in China and it unnerved me. Everyone seemed so friendly to us, almost to the point of annoyance. This, however, changed my perspective on this region, though it was probably exclusive to the mountain range. We paid the teacher back the money she had spent on our behalf. I wasn’t upset about losing 10 yen. That’s less than 2 American dollars, but it didn’t make me feel better about the situation.
We were then forced to walk down the mountain because our teacher refused to stay after that incident. I couldn’t help agreeing. It was bitingly cold up there, even when I had on 3 layers. The weather seems to be getting colder while we stay here. At the moment it is 43 degrees and it snowed in Kunming recently, so 3 layers were vital during the hike. The walk down took half the time as the walk up, which is not unusual. Yet, it was no less uncomfortable. My toes kept getting slammed into the tops of my shoes and I could feel blisters forming on my feet. We kept getting lost and taking alternate trails as David led us through the mountain with an air of confidence that suggested he was part GPS. We ended up arriving too far left of our original location, which was a serious problem. A 10 foot wall had been built to separate the 2 sides. David and I could have easily climbed over it, but the girls were not as willing. Christen, losing her temper, snapped at David and berated him for leading us this way. David went silent and tried to find an alternate route, though he didn’t succeed. After several minutes of debate, we were forced to push the girls over the wall.
When we finally arrived back at the University, there was an air of scorn and I plugged in my earphones, ignoring the constant sniping between the 2 of them. The teacher said farewell with her friend and we took the bus back home. After a 5 yen footbath and a hot shower, we were rejuvenated enough to eat dinner, then slide into bed. The night was cold and unfriendly and I was grateful for the heated blanket. I felt sheltered and content under in my sanctuary of covers and barely noticed the piercing notes of the karaoke outside my door as I drifted off into a deep, dreamless sleep.


  1. What a wonderful description of your experience over the past few days. Thank you! Love and miss you and hope you are feeling much better! Dad

  2. Hi Jimmy!
    sounds like you had a lot of fun in Lijiang and climming up the mountain. It is nice to hear of your amazing voyage! I hope you continue to have fun.

    Ty found out that a side affects of having lots of Kava is that it makes you immune system less effective, that might be why you are feeling sick. I hope you feel better though!

  3. Again, a beautiful blog...I/we feel so privileged that you've shared your journey with us. I hope this finds you feeling better and stronger each day.

  4. Fantastic Jimmy! Your writting was from the heart on top of vivid experiences. Excellent! I can be work to make that that happen so don't push it.
    Hope you're recovering from the food, that's no fun. Tommy

  5. I wish that I could have seen David getting berated. Would have been hilarious!