Thursday, May 05, 2005

"Land Of The Red Lantern"
Chengdu, China

We've arrived safely in China. Besides my mother being rather stingy with our shared supply of toilet paper, she and I have been getting along smashingly...

The first thing I have to say is this: I never wanted to go to China. I hated the food. I hated the sound of the language. And I thought the whole country would be filthy and loud and smelly and filled with animal markets where people were feasting on giant legs of dog.

My stereotypes have been completely shattered.

When we arrived in Chengdu, the capital city of the Sichuan Province, we were blown away by how CLEAN all the streets are. They're swept daily. There's no trash whatsoever. And aside from the nasty habit of spitting and clearing throats, the Chinese are very clean. The people have been so incredibly kind and curious and good-humored. No one hassles us or begs us for money or begs us to go stay at their hotel. Or if they do, I can't understand them. We also happened upon a long street filled with pet stores stocked with puppies, kittens, turtles, snakes, and buckets of Koi fish.

I guess they only eat the ugly dogs.

We spent the first couple of days walking through the streets of Chengdu following the river and walking beneath the shade of weeping willows past groups of old men playing ma jong. We sat and drank tall glasses of hot tea. The tea in China is water poured over two inches of fresh green tea leaves or orange lily leaves that dance through the water like koi. We spent six hours on an epic search for a %&*@ noodle shop that we never found. Everything is in Chinese and hardly anyone speaks English here. During our first couple of days, we saw about ten Westerners in total out of thousands of people that we came across. Reading a map in Chinese is impossible. We just wander around until we see a cool place to check out.

Because we never could find the %*@ noodle shop, we tried every other food we came across. We bought shish kebabs of strange looking meat and vegetables that a man dipped into a hot vat of oil and smeared with loads of chili peppers and herbs....jicama, something like an eggplant, tofu (we think or really, really odd looking cheese), chicken, pork, potatoes. We ate steamed dumplings filled with pork and spices, pita bread sandwiches filled with chicken, plates of noodles sauteed in peanut oil with slivers of peppers and onions.

The strangest thing we ordered was a glass of some brown liquid that tasted like slightly warm, watered down coffee. At the bottom of the glass were these large purple, fish-egg looking things that we slurped up through a fat straw. Mucilagenous little tasteless suckers.

Before leaving Chengdu we made our way to a Panda Breeding Reserve. Again, blown away. I thought the preserve would be depressing and cramped. We walked through long stretches of bamboo stands along immaculate pathways and came within several feet of full grown pandas lying on their backs munching on fat stalks of bamboo like crunchy celery.

I have to admit I cried when I saw the first panda pair. They're the most beautiful, comical creatures. There was nothing between us except a two foot high wooden fence and a small ditch. They groaned and purred and scratched their backs. Their black and white fur is absolutely gorgeous. We watched the six month old babies tumbling along and wrestling with each other. They're about the size of a furry wombat. One of the babies decided that he only wanted to go places backwards. He'd turn around check out his destination and then start backing up towards it. We watched him go up a ladder backwards and roll onto his back only to turn around and do the whole thing again. Backwards.

We've made our way to the south, to northern Yunnan. We're in an ancient historical city called Lijiang which has, not surprisingly, been named a World Heritage Site for its preservation of Chinese culture and history. The ancient town (situated at 10,000 feet) is composed of intimate little walkways along canals lined with weeping willows. The stone pathways lead between stores and shop fronts with giant, red carved wooden doors. We're staying at a hotel with one of the best preserved courtyards in the old town. Our wood carved doors swing open onto the most exquisitely cinematic view I could have imaged. A square courtyard lined with hanging red lanterns, giant wooden carved designs on the pagoda style building. The courtyard is open air and filled with giant orchids, cycads, and a bonsai tree. We're awoken in the morning by the happy chatter of the hotel staff cooking and scrubbing the floors. The scene is so surreal when we push our doors open that I keep expecting a movie crew to be out there filming Tom Cruise in a samurai sword fight or Jackie Chan leaping over a table.

At night, the town glows a lovely red from the countless lanterns hanging outside of the stores. The stream runs beneath small wooden bridges and I've heard there's a part of the canal where they set candles afire and float them along the water.

We're headed to trek Tiger Leaping Gorge tomorrow for the next couple of days. The Yangze River has cut a deep gorge through the mountains here between Jade Dragon Mountain and Snow Mountain. It's famed to be one of the most picturesque treks in China (outside of Tibet). Incredibly steep terrain. We'll be hiking between villages along the high path which takes us several thousand feet above the Yangze River. Northern Yunnan is home to the Naxi (pronounced "Nashee") ethnic group who are loosely related to the Tibetans north of here. The Naxi farm in this are and are a uniquely matrilear culture...i.e. all land and names are passed down through the women.

From here we'll be heading North onto the Tibetan Plateau. Our accomodations will become more rustic (toilets are basically holes in the ground. You squat, you go, you wipe, you rinse it all down with a bucket water) and the weather more harsh.

We're exceedingly happy with China and we're both practicing our Chinese on a daily basis...."I'm hungry. That was yummy. Where's the toilet, please?" etc.

Until the next internet opportunity....adieu!

We had omelettes, cucumber salad with chilis and garlic, and chocolate crepes for breakfast. We're headed to see a Naxi music concert tonight.

Now we're ready to TREK!

much love,
Rachel and her beloved Mamacita