Monday, February 28, 2011

Last day in Lijiang

It's about time to round up the Lewkowitz visit in preparation for Friday and [Adam's friend from Amherst who is awesome] Janice's visit! So we left off returning to Lijiang for our last night and day of the trip...

That night in Lijiang was spent finding gifts throughout Old Town. While walking in the main square, we happened upon a dance party that was kind of like the Bai (minority group in Yunnan) Horah. While we were all dying to join in, we didn't want to intimidate them with our expert Jewish moves; instead, we walked into a tea shop and ended up having an impromptu tasting!
The tea was delicious, and Cathy ended up buying some to bring back to her friends.

On Sunday, we decided to walk to the other side of Old Town and explore the Black Dragon Pool (which Cathy kept referring to as the Blue Lagoon. hahaha). It is a scenic area at the base of the Jade Snow Mountain; the melting snow from the mountain is the source of the running water here and throughout Lijiang's canals.
 There were several pagodas and a few temples and gardens.
 It was a very peaceful morning, away from the hectic shops and ever-present smell of yak meat, and the perfect way to end our vacation down south.

We left the Black Dragon Pool for a yummy western lunch at Prague Cafe (the only thing Czech about it were the pictures on the walls, but the American food was delicious!) and then packed up, used the western toilet one last time, and headed to the airport...passing our "friend" from Dali (awesome, OH YEAH!) along the way. It was a fantastic trip, away from cold and smoggy Beijing, and all of us had a great time traveling together. It was sad to return home and help Cathy and Herman pack up; their time here FLEW by. Luckily, we'll be home and see them (and everyone else!) in 3 short months!!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Xizhou/Dali

**I was on the treadmill yesterday, spotted the hairdressers, and almost fell down. They looked like they were doing a mix between the Macarena and Dovid Melech Yisrael. Then they proceeded to chant, military style, and march in place in a square formation. Only in China!

Anyway, back to Dali! We woke up leisurely, had a leisurely breakfast (including a dense mini pancake), and began a leisurely bike ride to the morning market. And that's where the craziness began. We rode past the town square,
entered a narrow street appropriately named "Walking Street" (we followed those directions and hopped off the bikes), full of shops and tons of people with basket/backpacks, bought freshly ground spicy chillies from one of the street stalls,
This contraption ground the whole chillies (left) into the flakes we bought.
and then hit the jackpot: the morning market.
Herman and Adam watched the bikes while Cathy and I walked around the vegetables, carefully avoiding the meat section. Of course, when we switched, Adam and Herman took my camera directly there (and to the fish section...ew) and took some pretty gruesome pictures. (please skip the next section if you have a heart. I obviously don't).

WARNING: disgusting pigs ahead.

They also passed a store that used a machine to squeeze vegetables and catch the oil in big pans. A much better find than the meat market!
After they returned to us satisfied with pictures and a video of the fish market we were able to resume the leisurely pace of the morning. We rode along fields of tea (we think),
and after stopping for a "western toilet" break at the hotel, continued on to Er Hai Lake.
The lake is massive and is known for cormorant fishing (fishermen tie something around a cormorant bird's neck so it cannot swallow large fish and then train the birds to spit out the fish that they catch), though it was quiet and deserted when we got there.

Along our ride, we passed women picking crops (the men were MIA),
and a randomly located and slightly hidden pagoda.
Of course, I also took several of my favorite type--reflection--pictures:
We then dropped off the bikes and returned to the village to find a place for lunch and buy fruit at the market. Strangely enough, it was almost empty, only a few hours later! We did happen upon some kids playing the carnival game where you throw a ring around a cup and win a fish. Have I mentioned that Adam is actually a little kid (mostly when it comes to candy!)? He played and won a fish!
If we were in Beijing, it would undoubtedly be on display in our apartment, but [un]fortunately, China has the same liquid-on-planes law that the U.S. has, and 3oz is just not enough water for a goldfish. Thus, he was forced to relinquish his prize to a kid. He chose the fat one :)

We suddenly heard drums beating and looked up to a parade! Men were carrying massive wreaths,
women had blankets and sheets, all wearing the same head wrapping,
and others were making music.
We were so excited! Was it a parade? A festival? A ceremony? Nope! As the procession continued, we realized that we had been excitedly photographing...
...a funeral. Awkward.

Cue embarrassed foreigners putting cameras away and returning to the hotel to gather our belongings and head to the train station.

Adam and I tried to exchange the tickets for actual seats, to no avail. We did, however, figure out that there were apparently no seats on the train, so we wouldn't be alone. After waiting in line a la Black Friday at Walmart with some very determined Chinese (future post: dealing with transportation in this country), we basically ran to our car to try and grab the first available seats. Turned out that it was exactly the same as the way TO Dali--sitting on beds in sleeper cars! We sat with a nice lady who then excused herself to sit elsewhere, so we ended up having the whole place to ourselves! A few train adventures worthy of note:

1. A woman passed by our open door several times before stopping and chatting it up. I managed to understand every 10th word or so (and knew contextually, she was interested in knowing more about us), so we managed to have a whole conversation, completely in Chinese!! She then proceeded to explain our presence to a group of people right outside our door. Hilarious.

2. 1.5 hours into the 3 hour ride, we stopped and everyone started pushing their way out of the train. We barely looked up, as we just knew we hadn't arrived...until I asked and apparently we were already in Lijiang! Surprise!

3. We found a cab in the madness at the train station, and the driver was downright jolly to be taking us. He walked taller with a noticeable spring in his step as he led us to his...truck. He went to open the back (as in we'd be sitting in the covered flatbed), and all 4 of us immediately said "oh no, no thanks, sorry." Haha poor thing had no idea what hit him!

and that, my friends, is what we call an adventure!

1/2 time break!

We interrupt this Yunnan blogging to tell you guys that there is a new hairdressing salon on our street, and every day at 5:00 pm, all 20 workers come out to the sidewalk, blast music, and do coordinated dances and chants for 15 minutes.

It's only been a week of doing this, but it's already the highlight of my commute.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dali (not Bali)

Backstory: Cathy had misheard where we were going and had told all her friends that she was going to Bali, so it was a slight shock when we told her that Dali is not, in fact, a beach paradise, but a small backpacking town in southern China. Oops :)

Before we even arrived in the town, we experienced some of the hilarious things that make traveling in China glorious.

1. We had purchased tickets for seats on the train to Dali. However, once we got to our cabin, we discovered our "seats" were actually 4 people crammed in each of the bottom bunks in a sleeper car! Surprise! These pictures epitomize our responses:
Adam: DIC (Dude, It's China); Herman: this is hilarious!
Alison: I'll scoot closer to Cathy so I don't touch the random person next to me; Cathy: WTF?!
2. We were harassed by an extremely determined taxi driver. She tried to negotiate with Adam before we went to the bathroom (ignoring his "buyao" - don't want) and was still hounding him when we came out 5 minutes later. As we walked to a different part of the station and ignored her advances, she followed! It was all we could do to keep from laughing hysterically!

3. We waited in line to purchase return train tickets to Lijiang; Adam and I practiced our Chinese phrases and were generally prepared...until the tickets we bought had a car but no seats. The woman was trying to tell us something and we just continued to say the train time we wanted because, really, neither of us had a clue as to what she was saying. Turned out that she was saying we did not have assigned seats and would probably have to stand up the whole ride. Awesome.

The sun was out and we enjoyed a long lunch outside in old town. That's where we met our "special friend," an American from South Carolina (with a midwest accent) who tried to sabotage our lunch. As soon as we sat down and started talking, this tall, gangly guy RAN out of the restaurant to sit by us, and kept interjecting into our conversation. It would have only been mildly annoying had he not had a horrible habit of speaking for 5 minutes straight, ending each sentence with "Awesome, OH YEAH" (like a song, it had different notes).  We tried our best not to look at or encourage the conversation, but we couldn't stop the flow of "Awesome, OH YEAH"s. Once his food came, he finally stopped talking, but the damage was done: for the rest of the trip, one of us would randomly say "Awesome, OH YEAH" in conversation, and we'd all burst out laughing. (Side note: We drove past him when we were back in Lijiang and he was walking on the side of the freeway!! All four of us died laughing).
After lunch, we ate the best ice cream in China (homemade!) and walked through a local market. We knew it was not for tourists because we passed three different dentists,
women carrying basket/backpacks to fill with purchased goods,
and a man with a tree on his back.
We then decided to go to our hotel, which was located in a neighboring village, Xizhou. We had to get in and out of a few cabs before finding someone who would take us (foreshadowing: remember this), and headed off. We drove past the signature Three Pagodas, and I pulled out my camera just in time, saving us a trip from visiting them later. (Have I mentioned that Adam and I think all pagodas and temples look the same after a while?)

Upon arriving at the hotel, Herman noticed that his front 2 pockets of his backpack were unzipped...and his Blackberry was missing!!! It was nowhere to be found. After he canceled the number (gotta love skype), we debated as to whether it was stolen in the market or left in Lijiang. The conclusion: it fell out in the 1st cab we tried to take, when his bag got caught on something in the trunk.

To add to the drama, it started raining, so instead of biking along the lake, we read (well, Cathy and I read while Adam and Herman napped) all afternoon/evening.
It was perfect and much-needed. Adam and I also explored the beautiful hotel; this is what it looked like from the outside (taken the following day, post-rain):
Gorgeous fields of a mystery crop, a few flowers, and a 10 minute bike ride from the lake. Yep, it was pretty awesome (OH YEAH!).

The Clampets go to Yunnan!

Did I say Clampets? I meant Lewkowitzes :)

After cold Beijing, Adam and I thought his parents might appreciate weather that is a little closer to home, so we planned a short tour of Yunnan Province, in southern China. We took a late flight on Wednesday, spent the night in the capitol (Cathy was such a trooper at the gross "Home Inn"), and took the first flight to Lijiang on Thursday morning. Upon arrival at our beautiful hotel, Adam coordinated a trip to Tiger Leaping Gorge for the morning.

The ride was about 2 hours (after sitting at a mechanic's for 30 min and switching cars/drivers) through spectacular scenery: plenty of rice paddies, small villages, mountains, and the rushing Yangtze River kept us entertained between the snoozing :) Instead of hiking the 18 miles, we opted to walk a gazillion steps, take a lot of pictures, and enjoy the views.
The tiger for whom the gorge is named is on the right.
(Side note: Herman took off his hat for this picture and forgot that his sunglasses were on it. We satisfied ourselves with the notion that they must have followed the tiger and leapt into the gorge...or into the pocket of one of the "guides" begging to carry tired tourists back up the stairs).

The funniest thing is that this was also our driver's first trip to the gorge...
...as evidenced by his traipsing down the steps and taking tons of pictures with us!

It was around this time that Cathy and I realized you can't go to Tiger Leaping Gorge without leaping:
(3rd time's a charm!)
We returned to Old Town Lijiang, wandered around, and then relaxed and recuperated at the hotel. What a change for me and Adam, to be at a nice hotel in China!!

Thursday night also happened to be Lantern Festival, which is held on the 1st full moon of the 1st month of the Lunar Calendar. It's basically the last chance for people to set off fireworks legally, and there were plenty! We weren't sure if the craziness of Old Town at night was due to the festival or tourist season, but it was definitely insane--restaurants noisily competing with their neighbors' music (Lady Gaga remix anyone?), throngs of people on crowded sidewalks and bridges, lots of shopping, and the "delightful" odor of Yak meat around every bend. Red lanterns lit up the town, which was actually a beautiful sight:
Small canals wind through old town.
We escaped the madness by souvenir shopping and laughing at many of the crazy clothes and tschotchkes (sp?) on display. After a not-so-great Chinese lunch, we decided to do western food for dinner; look at that smile on Cathy's face!
(This was obviously before they were out of mango ice cream and brought strawberry fluoride flavor).

It was a lot of fun to travel and sightsee together; Cathy and Herman got a glimpse of what Adam and I have been talking about all these months, and we laughed a lot about the craziness of the day. We went to bed early in preparation for a morning train to Dali...

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Rest of Beijing: Temple of Heaven, Great Wall, etc

Since snow adds even more beauty to the surroundings, I am making y'all suffer through your 3rd rendition of Adam at the Temple of Heaven and on the Great Wall ;)

As you remember from my amazing post yesterday, it snowed all day we were at the Summer Palace (Sunday). My parents and I were very nervous about going to the Wall and postponed our hike until Tuesday, when th
e trip organizers said it would not be icy. So, Monday, we went to the Temple of Heaven.
Luckily, my dad listened to my advice and decide that flying an American flag kite
during time of worldwide revolution against dictatorships/strong governments in the place where the Chinese army fired on its citizens was a bad idea...and so we flew the kite here. Well, he TRIED to fly the kite, but it didn't quite work. As funny as watching him run through trees dragging a kite on the ground was, it was actually a very sweet moment for all of us as the kite belonged to his mother, who passed away when I was a freshman in high school.

We then went to the Pearl Market, where my mom and I proceeded to buy out a friend of a friend's store. And then we went to CICAMS to hand out candy and cookies to my colleaguesbefore heading to dinner at DaDong for a double date on Valentine's Day. On the way back, we had a classic Chinese subway experience, crammed against each other and the doors the whole time.
Mom couldn't stop cracking up at the situation, and all of the Chinese people around us were smiling--I think having Mom's laughter point out the ridiculousness of their daily commute made everyone happier, as
it's not like they WANT to be on a subway that crowded either!

Then, we went to sleep early to rest up for our 6km hike on the Great Wall. We were PROMISED by the tour company that the Wall was not icy.

Yet, this is what the first staircase on the Wall looked like:
Liars ;) My dad and I weren't so happy, but my mom took about 5 seconds to
metamorphosize into this crazy, gung-ho workout lady (thanks, Lisa!), and she basically ran the whole way, leading our group of people my age. (We slowed her down big time, but we still finished the hike almost an hour before we were supposed to, despite treading carefully over ice patches.)

The wall was beautiful as ever:
And I've learned from Alison the magic of doorway/window pictures, without peopleand with them:
We also reenacted my favorite pic with Alison, when she walked down the stairs and all you saw was her head.
As icy as it was, for the most part, it wasn't so dangerous as they had a man with a stick whose job was to whack out a path. Here he is mid whack:
My mom the hiking Nazi also allowed us to snack near the end. First, we enjoyed Uncle Joe's coffee cake on the wall!Notice how full my cheeks were? I ate 1/2 of the cake in one bite and was like a chipmunk during the picture.

Then we took a picture to put on the hall of fame of our favorite local
restaurant,Teepee's: The caption will read: Great wall? Great salsa!

After we returned to the city, Alison joined us for happy hour, where my mom made the mistake of ordering a "frozen magartia" (margarita) in China...This is what she got:
Then we had a really fun dinner with Sarah, who just returned from India, and our language teacher, Olive.

Our final day in Beijing, we went to Alison's school. It was the most well-decorated school I've ever seen--the pictures don't do the tropical, race-car, and alphabet motifs justice! We watched the cutiepatooties do a choreographied dance to the song that has taken China by storm, which my dad recorded as video but hasn't sent it to us to upload on youtube for your enjoyment (hint hint). (side note, when I went to add a link to the song, called Nobody But You, I saw the video for the first time. Watch it here and imagine 2 year olds doing the choreography in the chorus!!!). And seeing Alison in action teaching is also an incredible experience--so much energy and control of the class! Very impressive.

After we left, we took a taxi to the pearl market to pick up the loot and headed to Carrefour to buy snacks for our trip to Yunnan. My parents walked wide-eyed through the store in what they said was a mass of people but was actually not so crowded (amateurs). They even got to see someone scoop out a fish and whack it on the floor to kill it before buying it! It took me months of shopping there to see that: some people have all the luck!

We then met Alison on the airport shuttle en route to our next adventure!