Thursday, February 26, 2009

Onward to Xinjiang...

I'm boarding the train to Urumqi this evening and will be on it for (gulp) two full days, so no posting during this time. My hotel in Urumqi has broadband so, Net Nanny willing, I'll put up a quick post when I get there.

In the meantime, I'll leave you with this public service announcement:

A couple of Laowai walk into a bar...

Both Richard and I have been surprised by the relatively few number of foreigners we've seen on this trip. In Beijing and Shanghai, they - we - are numerous, and you'd think there would be a fair number in major cities like Chongqing and Chengdu, but we went days where we were the only foreigners in sight. Even at huge tourist attractions like the Stone Forest. Global economic downturn? Off-season timing? Maybe it has more to do with how we travel - e.g., not in a tour group. But we've walked into places where our very presence created consternation among the locals.

Take the photo above. That was in a Chengdu restaurant not far away from a famous xiao chi ("small dishes") place noted in all the guidebooks. The famous joint had already closed for the night (Chengdu and Chongqing don't seem to be late night cities like Beijing and Shanghai), and we just got in under the wire at this place. The group sitting at the table, mostly restaurant staff, gaped at us. Covertly and not so covertly got out their cellphones and started taking photos. Fair is fair, I thought, so I got out my camera and took theirs.

Back in the day, this kind of reaction was not unusual. Except for in Beijing, where Beijingers even then had a certain sangfroid about the few barbarians in their midst, you were always stared at. Though not with giggles, usually. With intense, close-up appraisals, as if you were some form of space alien just beamed down to their planet. Not threatening aliens, just bizarre lifeforms requiring scrutiny.

Part of it was that we were young and on our own, out on the streets and on public buses and second-class trains and were therefore accessible, unlike the few mostly elderly groups of tourists who were generally isolated from the public, ferried about in mini-buses, fed in private dining rooms. No, we wandered around and got lost and poked our noses into places. It was intense everywhere, but the first place it felt really over the top was in Inner Mongolia, which had only recently been opened to "foreign guests." A guy on a bike saw us walking down the street in Hohhot, wondering about the piles of winter cabbage heaped on the sidewalks, did a double-take, spinning his neck around like Linda Blair in the Exorcist and literally fell off his bike. We went into an empty store that sold about three things - it was bare cement, hardly lit, a couple shelves and a counter - but they had these nifty brass hand scales to weigh herbs (I still have mine, hanging from a beam in my house). We'd been in there all of five minutes when the crowds started showing up. And I mean "crowds." A hundred people? Two? They pushed into the store, four to six people deep, just to get a close look at the aliens. The same thing happened during Spring Festival in Kunming. I have photos of this, of people surrounding Paul, surrounding me, standing inches away, hands clasped behind their backs, staring.

Or...speaking of Chengdu...I had to use a toilet. We were in a public park. I couldn't tell you which one; like every other city I'd seen back then in China, Chengdu has changed beyond recognition. This was a simple brick building with troughs and low walls maybe one foot high dividing them up, no doors, so there was no real privacy. No electricity that I recall, the light provided by a few ventilation windows up high on the walls. In spite of this, I remember a woman squatting there, doing her business, reading the paper.

When I walked in, the women there, three or four, stared. Just curious. They'd never seen somebody like me do this before.

This got to be kind of stressful after a while. Sometimes I just wanted to be anonymous, to disappear, but that wasn't possible. What made it particularly hard at times was the way that you couldn't just be you. Instead you were half-human, half-symbol, representing something much bigger than yourself. I felt this particularly when giving lectures at colleges in Beijing, and during my teaching tenure. I was the first American, or one of the first, that these people had ever met. I remember one day, all fired up, I gave a lecture about, I dunno, the Bill of Rights and the importance of the rule of law - I'd been inspired by an article I'd read written by Arthur Miller, who had traveled in China earlier that year. The students seemed interested in my first class, so I repeated it for the second two. Afterward, I was horrified by what I'd done. The Bill of Rights? The Rule of Law? I'm talking about this stuff in China?! It wasn't so much that I might get in trouble as the trouble I worried about causing others; that, and I barely remembered high school civics, so who was I to talk about such things?

On the other hand, other students I'd met, students of Paul's parents, quoted Thomas Jefferson at me, which was pretty disorienting too (I wrote a little more about this a few years ago).

China has changed so much so quickly that I still get disoriented these days, but over different things.

For example: a few nights ago, we went to a gay bar. I've been to plenty of gay bars and discos in my life; that's what artsy chicks of my generation and place of upbringing did. But an above-ground gay scene in China - I knew that it existed but was still bemused by it all. Ear-splitting dance music, disco ball, and drag show. And definitely one of those places where a couple of laowai walking in turned heads, big-time. Even one of the drag performers, a very cute young man wearing a gold lamé Speedo and gold cape broke character and winked at me. Interestingly the bar's patrons were both gay and lesbian, with groups of seemingly straight couples as well, out for a little cultural tourism and slightly transgressive fun.

In a couple of days I'll be heading up to Xinjiang, to a place where I'm told they are not at all used to seeing foreigners. I'm expecting stares, and that's okay. Once again, I'm giving a lecture, which makes me kind of nervous. Not about the rule of law or anything like that, mostly about my home state, California and former industry (film & TV). Like I'm some kind of expert, which I'm not. Just a wandering alien with an odd knack for showing up in unexpected places.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Canine public service announcement?

I'm not sure what to make of this...

Walking from Wuhouci to Du Fu's Thatched Cottage (more on that later), I encountered a couple in their thirties walking their dog. It's no longer unusual to see people with pets in China - the popularity of dogs in particular has skyrocketed the last few years. On this trip, in every city I've visited I've seen so many urban Chinese taking their dogs for a walk - well-groomed, well-cared-for and obviously well-loved dogs.

However, I have never seen a golden retriever carrying a ribbon-decorated basket with empty plastic bottles and a few plastic wrappers. Neither had anyone else around me. As I followed the couple and the dog, others would notice and laugh and point.

The dog seemed to take this duty very seriously. Once a wadded-up piece of plastic blew out of the basket - the dog put the basket down, retrieved the plastic and put it in the basket. Even his owners laughed at that.

I didn't have the sense they exploited the dog. The woman in particular seemed very attached to the retriever, hovering anxiously and clutching a handful of ear and fur as they crossed a busy intersection.

I'm at a loss to explain it, except that maybe the woman was some sort of urban environmentalist, making the point that if her dog could pick up trash and recycle it properly, so could everyone else, dammit...

More tomorrow. I'm tired.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

More PANDAS!!!!!!!

You got a problem with that?

Richard has moved on to Xian, and I'm here in Chengdu for a few more days, waiting to take the train to Urumqi. I was surprised at how scarce the tickets were, even for soft sleeper - or maybe that's not so surprising, given that this is a full two days of train travel. If you have the money, you're going to want soft sleeper, and I am not expecting that to be particularly comfortable for that amount of time either. But heck, it's an experience, and why else am I here, if not to collect a few more interesting ones?

I decided to change hotels for the rest of my stay here. Honestly, the place we were in before was really nice. They give you fruit baskets! And robes. But the part of town it's in, the Zongfu Road shopping district, isn't that interesting. So I've moved to the Southwest, in the "Jinli Recreation District." This is not "recreation" as in the, having fun, playing badminton sense, but rather, the recreation of historic styles of architecture. It's very touristy (almost entirely Chinese tourists - laowai are in short supply here, something I'll be posting about later), but undeniably charming, and it sits in a really interesting neighborhood.

Tibetans live here, maroon and saffron robed monks strolling up and down the streets, talking on their cellphones, cowboys with leather hats and stuffed grimy duffels buying lamb skewers and flat-bread from a tiny Uighur storefront. I bought some skewers myself, cooked fresh over a metal half cylinder loaded with ashy coals, by a very pregnant Uighur woman who I'm pretty sure speaks less Chinese than I do. Two skewers cost two kuai, about thirty cents. Then for good measure I walked down the block and bought a meat pie thing - one kuai. So far, so good on the digestive front. I did discard the bottle of water I bought at another stall - not a local brand but one I've had a number of times. The cap opened far too easily and the water was filled to the top. I've read about cases where unscrupulous operators refilled old bottles with tap water, and though this bottle could have been fine, I decided it wasn't worth risking my health for 1.5 kuai. Though I guess you could make the argument that I did that with the street food. Oh well.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Sunday, February 22, 2009

In a word, "Stygian"

(that title's for you, fellow Wombats!)

Chongqing bears little resemblance to the city I visited thirty years ago. Even the natural landscape has been altered or obscured, and made unfamiliar. "Chongqing is a mountain city," my friend Xujun would often say, but development blocks the mountain views. Even the Yangze is smaller than it once was, its banks filled to make room for yet more development.

Of all the Chinese cities I've visited, I've never seen one that more closely resembles Ridley Scott's "Bladerunner." A dank fog shrouds the city much of the time, making the mornings dark. Rank after rank of impossibly tall, impossibly skinny apartment buildings, crammed so close together that sunlight could barely penetrate, that I swear you could stick your hand out your window and shake hands with your neighbor across the way. Add to that the chaotic traffic that overwhelms the streets and highways, the city's layout that follows no discernible plan - all it needs are a couple of omnipresent blimps with video advertising (there are of course massive video screens on the sides of buildings and the requisite giant LED signs, at least).

It's fascinating, in a dystopian kinda way, and down in individual neighborhoods, actually pretty pleasant, with abundant street-life, trees and in the newer areas, charming landscaped areas that I still find a rarity in Chinese cities.

Thirty years ago, Paul and I had come to Chongqing to meet up with his parents, who were on a vacation tour provided by their university for Spring Festival. We thought it might be fun to travel down the Yangze with them, be taken care of for a while. Traveling in China at that time was very difficult - they were not at all used to independent travelers, for one thing, and we spoke very little Chinese.

Also, no one had warned us about what it was like to travel during Chinese New Year. Who knew that about half the population of a billion plus Chinese left where they were and went someplace else, all at the same time? Looking down at the Chongqing river docks, watching the ferries load up, resembled a scene out of some World War 2 documentary: refugees fleeing the encroaching Japanese, carrying any and all of their belongings they could manage tied up huge bundles, lugging entire doors and lashed to carry-poles, television sets. Okay, the television sets do not fit the WW2 comparison. But it seemed impossible that these mobs of people and all of their things could fit onto the ferries they tried to board.

We stayed at a place that stuck in my memory for years, because compared to most of the "proletarian" architecture of Chinese cities at that time (Soviet Russia, you have a lot to answer for, architecturally), it was a memorable building: a giant round palace that resembled a carousel, topped by a gold knob. It's still standing today, much remodeled:

The main building is actually a theater. The hotel was in outlying wings. Like most everything else at that time, the facility was rundown and mildewed and overwhelmingly beige, though I do recall new, boxed television sets piled in one of the hallways, waiting to be installed.

My main memories of Chongqing thirty years ago are these:

We visited a number of revolutionary historical sites. This was much more interesting to me than you might think. Though my knowledge of Chinese history was sketchy at best when I'd arrived in China, I'd become fascinated by the late Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai - I still am, in fact. At the time, amongst the teachers and returned students I knew in Beijing, Chairman Mao was not very popular. Once, in fact, Paul's parents threw a "White Elephant Party" for the teachers whom they worked with and taught advanced English. This is when you bring something you don't want any more and give it away, in exchange for something that somebody else doesn't want any more. One of the teachers pulled out a bundled handkerchief. Wrapped in it was a pile of Mao buttons. He grinned, then chuckled and said, "White elephant."

Zhou Enlai, on the other hand, was still regarded as "the Peoples' Premier," one of the few sympathetic figures in the upper echelon of the Party's leaders, the man who'd tried to keep the country running and who mitigated some of Mao's worse excesses. This is not an entirely accurate representation of Zhou's role during this time - he was nothing if not complex, and it is impossible to summarize anything about him so neatly - but it is not entirely inaccurate either. I'm always drawn to ambiguous characters, especially those with a hint of tragedy.

He was also very handsome, with an actor's ability to portray emotion. "I think that is part of why I like him so much," Xujun said to me recently. "I just like to look at him." Me too.

I got into the habit of buying any Zhou Enlai souvenirs I could get my hands on - not many, compared to the masses of Mao memorabilia left over from the Cultural Revolution - some posters and some buttons and a couple of thin books and comics about his early life. I'd also ask people what they thought of him. There had to be something bad about the guy, some dirt. One person reluctantly told me that "maybe he had a girlfriend who was not his wife. But maybe this is just a rumor." I sort of hoped it was true. You don't want a person to be perfect.

Zhou spent a lot of time in Chongqing during World War 2 the Anti-Japanese War, as the Communist representative to the Nationalists during the United Front period, mixing with Allied diplomats and journalists, spies and underground organizers.

So I was really happy about getting to see Zhou Enlai's office. Zhou Enlai's bedroom. Even Zhou Enlai's bathroom (I have a slide to prove it). My memory of what and where these places were, exactly, was pretty hazy.

Thirty years later, Xujun took me up to the Red Craig Village. This was the Communist Party Delegation headquarters during the United Front Period. Up in the mountains, overlooking the modern city at a distance, it's really a beautiful spot. Peaceful.

"Did you visit this before?" she asked.

I couldn't remember. I wasn't sure. Nothing looked familiar. It didn't look unfamiliar either. I just didn't recall. "The place I went to might have been in town," I said.

"Maybe it didn't make a big impression on you," Xujun said.

This wasn't the case, not really, but it was thirty years ago, and my memory has always been spotty and strange when it comes to recalling events. Ask me about song lyrics and tunes, trivial factoids, foreign languages, all that stuff I remember and remember well, but what I did yesterday, not always so much.

We wandered through the main building, looking at the photographs, the offices, the staff sleeping quarters. Here was Zhou Enlai's office. I wasn't sure if I'd seen it before or not. He did have another office in the old downtown part of Chongqing. Maybe I'd never been up here before. The office was blocked off by two stanchions with a retractable ribbon barrier. The bedroom was through a doorway at the back of the office. "Go in and take a photo," Xujun whispered. "Come on, I'll stand guard!" I didn't want to - I'm a great believer in following the rules - but finally I agreed and went in.

The bedroom is small, taken up almost entirely by the bed, at the bottom of a short flight of stairs. Now that looked familiar.

When we got to the library, I knew.

There on the wall was a framed piece of calligraphy, the characters done in an unusual, "modern" style. I'd seen this before. I remembered it exactly. I'd been so struck by the unusual form of the characters, the almost whimsical modernity of them, that I'd taken a slide. Now, here they were. "Now I remember. Yeah, I've been here before."

As I explained to Xujun, there was another reason that my memories of Chongqing were a little hazy, and that was because I got violently ill the next day. I felt a little out of sorts in the morning, when the group was going off to tour someplace else (I have no idea what or where) and decided that I'd stay at the hotel, beige and mildew and all. Shortly after they left, I started throwing up. I swear it was the soggy cauliflower and gristly pork dish we'd had the night before. Whatever it was, I kept throwing up, and by the evening I was really in sad shape.

It was determined that I should go to the hospital and see a doctor.

At this time, it was almost impossible to travel in China without being assigned a "minder," usually from Liuxingshe, the official China Travel agency. Paul's parents school group had two graduate students who traveled with them. In addition, different minders took care of the group in different cities.

The Chongqing minder was a piece of work. In years he wasn't all that much older than I was, late twenties, thirty at most, but he was a thoroughly nasty little man. I don't know why he hated us, what we'd done that had provoked his ire, but loathe us he did.

So, I had to go to the hospital. He was to escort me there. Paul came along too. He didn't arrange for a car. No. We were to walk. It was freezing cold. The streets were frozen mud. No sidewalks. Hardly any streetlights. Now and again workers pounded bricks and metal for some mysterious purpose that required them to work long after dark.

I'd walk a half a block, boots crunching in the icy mud. Stop. Grab onto a pole or a fence or whatever I could find. Throw up. Walk a little further. Throw up some more. Walk. Shiver. Puke.

We got to the hospital. It was not reassuring. A concrete block building, bare slabs of gray cement. Dimly lit, the occasional bare bulb. No decoration. The exam room had a steel table and a chair in it and not much else.

The doctors and nurses, however, were very nice, wonderfully kind, in fact. I immediately felt better, especially after they gave me a shot of some sort and some pills to take. They spoke to our minder, with Paul hovering in the background.

The minder turned to me and smiled. "They say they think you have appendicitis. They say you might need an operation." His face loomed over mine. "Are you scared?"

I had to laugh. "What do you think? Like I want to have an operation? Of course I'm scared."

He retreated.

"I don't think that's what they said," Paul whispered to me. "I think they said it might be appendicitis, if it doesn't get better."

And in fact, that's what the doctors had said. If I didn't feel better in a day or so, I should come back, just to be sure it wasn't something more serious.

Forgive me, Chongqing. I've thought badly of you all these years. It wasn't your fault. I'm glad I had a chance to return, to experience the warm hospitality of my friend and her family, your earthy streets and docks, Communist museums and memorials, and of course, Zhou Enlai's bedroom.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Free range foreigner....

Quick post to say we've arrived in Chengdu, checked into our lovely hotel - it claims only to be three stars, but we'd rate it a four - it has robes and actual coffee cups with saucers and SPOONS! Though we are still puzzling out why they also rent rooms by the hour. Honestly, it doesn't look like that kind of place, faux French name aside.

The staff here doesn't speak a word of English. This was a bit of a disadvantage when I got a phone call, shortly after going to my room, from a very pleasant-sounding woman who asked me if I wanted to arrange for a shower and something else I didn't understand. Now, if I were a man, it would be pretty clear what she was calling about, but after I said, "I'm sorry, I don't understand, my Chinese isn't very good," she chuckled and said, "Then I will say it slowly so you can understand." And again asked if I would like to arrange for a shower and some other services that I still couldn't understand.

Now, there is a whole bath house culture here in China that is in no way sexual. Back in the day when most Chinese people did not have decent facilities in their homes, the communal bathhouse was where you went to shower and shampoo and shave and get exfoliated and massaged and what have you. I actually experienced this for the first time in Kunming. Quite a trip. Not for the shy. The sexes are segregated, but you still spend a lot of time standing around naked. The facility is mostly white tile and wood tubs and dim lighting, giving it a slightly subterranean vibe. I went ahead and splurged for the "milk bath" and was thoroughly exfoliated, all the while bumbling around, not knowing what to do and pretty much making an ass of myself. Unfortunately I didn't have time to experience the "Xiuxi Ting" - the "Rest Hall" - where the genders can mingle and chat and snooze and watch TV after their showers - and then go back down to the bathhouse and shower and exfoliate some more.

Anyway, if you are a man traveling in China, you will more often than not receive calls in your hotel room for "massage," and it's well-understood what this actually means. But as a woman...I'm clueless. What was I being offered, exactly?

The other odd thing about this hotel was that no one asked me for my passport. Richard, my traveling companion, had made the reservations, so they wanted his passport (and credit card, for the deposit). I stood there, passport in hand, because in the past, regardless of who made the reservation and who left the deposit, you had to show your passport.

But no request came for mine.

So here I am, in this genuinely charming and well-appointed Chengdu hotel room, wearing the hotel robe and disposable slippers, and I am anonymous. No record of my arrival or of my stay here.

Free range foreigner...

Friday, February 20, 2009

"Stool Room"

From the bathroom on the Dali lake cruise boat. I only wish I'd gotten the one from Li Qun Peking Duck restaurant in Beijing that reads, "No shit!"

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Live from Chongqing...

Greetings! We're settled in here in Chongqing, a process made infinitely easier thanks to Xujun Eberlein, her sister and friends. They picked us up at the airport, reserved rooms for us at a very nice hotel (and for a great rate too) and generally are being incredible and gracious hosts. Xujun is the author of the award-winning collection of short stories, "Apologies Forthcoming" (I interviewed Xujun here) and writes the always illuminating blog, Inside Out China - currently and somewhat mysteriously blocked in China.

This is my second visit to Chongqing. The first was in early February 1980. I can honestly say that I'm already having a better time than that first experience, which I'll try and post about tomorrow. Right now, a full day of travel from Dali involving just about every form of transportation but a boat and a donkey cart has got me pretty wiped out, and I'm going to take advantage of this lovely, quiet hotel room and get some sleep.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Your intrepid correspondent in Dali

Okay, I get it. Yes, it's commercialized. Yes, older Bai women in their "ethnic minority" costumes come up to you and whisper, in the lowest, sweetest of voices, "Ganja? Hashish?" - it's like your Granny the Pot Dealer - and you'll want to stay off Fuxing Lu, which is a tourist trap. But seriously, what's not to like about Dali, Yunnan? Beautiful old town, carefully restored, minimal traffic, great restaurants and bars with a cosmopolitan vibe, clean blue skies, huge blue lake, mountains...and did I mention Granny the Pot Dealer?

Not that I took advantage of that or anything. Really! I didn't. And I don't know that I would recommend you do either.

But I would definitely recommend Dali as a wonderful, relaxing and inexpensive getaway. It doesn't surprise me that some travelers come here and forget to leave.

And while you're here, check out "The Caffeine Club" (no website yet, they're working on it), run by Georgia USA natives Chris and John.

Super-nice guys who run a friendly, relaxed place down on the quiet eastern stretch of Renmin Lu. The entire street is worth a walk, and it's a nice change of pace from the more developed western end, full of local shops and only an occasional tourist.

We had a great time today, cruising on the lake and getting lost in the outskirts of town, where the marble cutters work. I often think that getting lost is the best thing you can do while traveling.

And yeah, I'm eating a fish on a stick. Why do you ask?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Reporting from Dali, Yunnan

We arrived early this AM at Dali, which I gather is a sort of hippie/bohemian/backpacker paradise. I haven't seen enough yet to confirm that, but we have a very nice hotel in a traditional courtyard, probably the nicest appointed room I've ever had in China (needless to say, I am not a five-star traveler).

I'm still settling in and will try and post in greater detail later today.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Why did the laowai cross the road?

"'Black' car. Not safe," the middle-aged woman told me, as she washed the rear window of her taxi. "You understand my meaning? 'Black' car not safe."

"I understand," I told the taxi driver. But the 'black' car - illegal, or to frame it more positively, an example of private enterprise contributing to China's unique brand of capitalism with socialist characteristics (or is it the other way around?) - would take us out to the Stone Forest for 350 yuan - 50 yuan less than the off-the-meter taxi.

"Black car, taxi, it's all the same," the tout who had hooked us up proclaimed. She and her partner, another woman in her thirties, waited by the public bus station, waylaying travelers who couldn't get where they need to go on the bus, which at this point included us.

Even though we'd been assured by several knowledgeable locals that we could catch a bus to the Stone Forest any time of day at the public bus station near the train station, like so many things in China, just because someone tells you something with authority doesn't mean it's true. In fact we would have had to have caught a bus for the Stone Forest this morning, one of those ubiquitous white mini-busses that waits until it's full-up before departing.

"A car is a car," the tout continued. "It's perfectly safe." She led us to the driver, a stocky man with a greasy head of graying brown hair and one of those stiff, boxy Chinese sweaters that defies characterization - it's not at all clear where this non-fashion comes from, what it's trying to emulate. It just is.

The car looked okay, an aging black AudiVolkswagon Santana. Back in the day, not too long ago, these Volkswagons were top of the line. Now they've been supplanted by silver Beamers, Audis, and for reasons that are hard to unpack, Buicks.

Once we wound our way through construction sites and half-built roads more unpaved than not - Kunming's traffic is notoriously bad, partly because the infrastructure has yet to catch up with the volume of cars - it was a quick trip to the Stone Forest was on a new highway, taking a little over an hour. Far different than my first trip here. No highway that time. I don't remember much about that trip, except that it took many hours. I can't even say for certain how we got there, I think by an aging public bus, dirt-white trimmed in red, but the ride was long enough and hard enough that you had to spend the night out there, in a guest house with shabby bungalows painted that particular shade of light green. After watching the "ethnic minority" dances and singing "Rocky Raccoon," we'd retired to our room and drunk "balandi" to celebrate my birthday, then gone home the next day.

Of course I didn't recognize any of the complex around the entrance to the Stone Forest. I doubt if any of it was there nearly thirty years ago, though much of it is old enough to suffer from "White tile disease," that late, unlamented period in Chinese architecture where nearly every public building was fronted in white tile.

We agreed to meet the driver back by the car park in about an hour. That was all the time we'd need.

At first, I wondered how the hell I was going to do what I'd come here to do. I'd brought Paul's ashes in an old hong bao, complete with two gold-foil covered chocolate coins, tucked in my jacket pocket. By the time I'd reached Beijing, the hong bao had started to leak, so I'd put it inside a Baggy. I already worried about being conspicuous. But as we entered the Stone Forest, I wondered how I would manage to do this at all. A wide road wound around hills and limestone spires, shuttle busses driven by young women dressed up in ethnic minority costumes. Tour groups were everywhere, hoards of them, led by guides with pennants and loudspeakers. Was this it? Could you even get off the main road? Was I going to have to scatter ashes dodging tourist mobs taking photos of each other and eating snacks?

Richard and I walked up the road a pace. The sun blazed down on us. It hadn't been nearly this warm when Paul and I had come here thirty years ago. We'd been thrilled that it was warm enough to go without long underwear and gloves and a scarf, but now, it had to be at least 75 degrees.

We came to something called the "Bushaoshan Hill Scenic Area." The signboard pointed toward a narrow stone path that headed into a thicket of stone spires and roughly paralleled the larger road. We followed the path. It wound up the hill, at times leading through passages so narrow that I had to take off my pack and walk sideways.

At length we came to the highest point of the path. From here you could see for miles. It was quiet. No tour groups came this way. Just the breeze.

This seemed like the right place.

I unsealed the Baggy, now gray with the dust of Paul's ashes. I opened the hong bao, spilling some ashes on my hands in the process. The breeze gusted up from the valley below, blowing some of the powder back into my face, onto my camera. I scooped out a handful. Said nothing. Didn't think in words, either. Just, "this is for the beautiful part of you, Paul." I let the ashes go. Put the two gold coins on a rock. And said goodbye.

I took a few photos after that, laughing a little because some grit had gotten into the lens ring, and the top of the camera was powdered with ash. Well, Paul had been a photographer at times in his life, and hey, I'd purchased the service contract on the camera (an Olympus E-410), after the saleswoman had lectured me on how easy it was for dust to get inside these things, and how that could really screw them up.

After that, we headed for the exit, where the driver waited, and then we got on the highway back to Kunming.

Shortly after we'd passed through the toll entrance marking Kunming's official boundary - an outer suburb far from the city center and our hotel - our car sputtered to a halt. Right in the middle of the main highway into Kunming.

"Aiya," the driver muttered. He tried to start the car. It cranked anemically. Not even close to turning over.

"Oh, great," Richard said. "I've seen cars run right into stalled cars in China. It happens all the time. Like that truck behind us."

"Shit. Fuck. Shit." Lots of honking. Cars and trucks slowed, swerved around us.

"Seriously," Richard said. "I've seen it more than once."

Big blue construction truck. Honk. Swerve.

"Okay, that was close."

The driver, meanwhile, got out of the car, casually as if he'd broken down in a parking lot, popped the hood, checked the oil.

"Should we get out of the car?"


We waited until the lane to our left was clear and climbed out, pressed against the median wall while the driver continued to mutter and putter with his dead beater Audi.

Meanwhile, a worker in a yellow safety vest and hardhat waved for us to cross the highway, shouting something that I couldn't make out. Even if I could have heard him, I probably wouldn't have understood him anyway. Yunnan dialect bears little relationship to Beijing Mandarin.

Cross the highway? It's one thing to walk out in the middle of traffic on your typical Chinese street. There's a sort of art and flow to it, and while I can't say I'm totally comfortable, I've learned to adapt. But not this. This was a fucking freeway.

Except here, there were people hanging out on the side of the highway, near the exit. I have no idea why, what they were waiting for. A guy on a motorcycle weaved over, smiling, gesturing at his seat.

"I don't think so," I said.

Finally the worker walked across the highway. No big deal. Gestured for us to come with him. We did. He held up his hand at the oncoming cars and massive diesel trucks, and they slowed and stopped, and we followed him across.

"You can catch a taxi," the worker said, pointing off in the general direction of the exit, then pointing again at the motorcyclist, who grinned at us, showing tea-stained teeth. Then he and another worker started pushing the crippled Volkswagon over to the nearly non-existent shoulder.

We just stood there, not sure what to do. Walk down the exit? Look for a taxi? Were we even in Kunming proper?

All the while the motorcyclist waited, grinning. Another motorcyclist had slowed and stopped to watch the fun, along with a couple of young men who'd been hanging out by the exit. "You can take taxi," the worker said, returning with the driver.

"I'll take you to a taxi for 10 yuan," the motorcyclist said, again, patting the seat of his cycle.

"The two of us?" Richard said. "This is big enough?"

"Big enough," the motorcyclist said, grin even bigger. "No problem."

"Go with him," the worker said, "just give him-" meaning the driver - "his money."

"No way I'm paying him 350 kuai," Richard said.

"How much?" I asked the driver.


"350?" I said, incredulous. "Why should we give you 350? Your car broke! This isn't the train station! We're not giving you 350!"

"350!" the driver insisted.

"We're not at the train station!" I yelled back.

"I'll give you 300," Richard told him. "That's all."

The driver took it, not at all happy with the situation, but what was he going to do? "I shouldn't have even given him that much," Richard said. The two of us walked towards the off-ramp.

The second motorcyclist, a middle-aged man, cruised past, busting a grin. "You speak good Chinese," he told me. More to the point, I'd provided some good entertainment.

"I've got a long way to go!" I said, laughing.

We did have a long way to go. The exit led into what looked like an industrial park - not many buildings, not a lot of traffic and certainly no taxis cruising by, just our friend, the first motorcyclist.

"I'll take you to a taxi," he said again.

Richard presented both sides of the argument.

"Are we really going to do this? How can both of us fit? But we might never find a taxi out here."

So we said okay, and climbed on the motorcycle, me first, holding onto the driver, Richard behind me, grasping the carry-rack behind him, long legs just skimming above the asphalt.

"Please drive slowly," I requested. "Man zou!" The motorcyclist wasn't offended by my back-seat driving, mainly because for whatever reason, I couldn't stop laughing as we puttered down the off-ramp, all three of us on one underpowered Chinese bike, and onto the street. "If we don't die, this'll be a great story to tell our grandchildren," I babbled, "not that I'll ever have any grandchildren, but you know, the if we don't die part..."

We passed a bus stop, swooped around a couple busses, turned a corner, then came to an intersection. Across the street, heading past us, was a taxi.

"Hey!" the motorcyclist shouted, waving madly. "Shifu! Hey! Ting che!"

The taxi stopped, practically in the middle of the intersection, and so did we. I gave the motorcyclist his 10 yuan, and then asked if I could take his picture, "because you are our hero!" It's a little blurry because I had to take it in a hurry, since we were sort of tying up traffic. But you can see his smile.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Found in a Kunming bathroom.

Friday, February 13, 2009

On the road to Kunming...

Sitting in the Beijing Capital airport last night, waiting for our flight to Kunming, it was a really different scene in the domestic terminal than my more typical international experience. I think we were the only foreigners, and many of the Chinese people that waited there lacked the polish of the up and coming Beijing urbanite. You got the sense that this was a provincial crowd waiting to go home.

I kept watching one family, a little boy, maybe four years old, his parents and an older man in PLA green whom I assumed was his grandfather. There was something just a bit disturbing about the tableaux. The mother was young, attempting fashion with cigarette leg jeans, stiletto heels and short jacket with faux fur collar, but it was all a bit worn and cheap. She had the remains of a black eye. The father, big, stocky, a slightly puffy round face, had knock-off basketball shoes in the strangest shade of tomato orange. His clothes needed a wash. Meanwhile the little boy was gleefully hitting his grandfather with an empty plastic water bottle. The grandfather played back; obviously he doted on the kid, but finally gathered up the boy and hugged him close, as a way to stop his hitting. It was the boy's playing at violence that disturbed me, when I considered his mother's black eye.

I was really tired so I just sat and watched and thought about nothing much, mostly the odd commercials for "Great Wall Red Wine" running on the airport video screen - attempts at sophistication that didn't come off - this plonk ain't fine Bordeaux, people, but of course the intended audience wouldn't know the difference - and the running crawl from China Aviation Authority warning passengers to watch their bags and "not take other peoples' stuff."

I happened to glance at the family across the way. The little boy's pants were down around his ankles, and the father held the empty water bottle so he could pee into it.

It's not like this kid was an infant, and the bathrooms in some other far away terminal - they were right there behind them, a few short yards away.

We got onto the plane - buses, rather, to take us to the plane - through a series of rails that looked like a line at a bus station. Richard and I were the only laowai on the flight. As we waited for everyone to get seated, a teenage girl came over and asked if she could take her picture with me. Now, this sort of thing often happens when you encounter Chinese people who aren't much used to Westerners, but I was a little surprised to find it on a flight from Beijing to Kunming.

She was sweet, and so was her friend, and it made them very excited and giggly, so what the heck?

"Maybe they think you're famous," Richard said.

It seemed to take forever for passengers to settle in. In fact, as the plane pulled away from the terminal, there were at least 10 passengers up and around, all the flight attendants too, and as we taxied towards the runway, they showed no signs of sitting down; a half dozen of them were arguing with each other and several of the flight attendants, and as for the other standing passengers, occasionally a flight attendant would pass by and say in desultory fashion, "Mashang zuoqilai."

I would not have been too surprised if they'd stayed in the aisles for the whole flight, but finally, just before we gathered speed for takeoff, everyone sat down.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

On to Kunming

I've had a busy time since arriving in Beijing, bar-crawling, um, meeting with friends and colleagues. Right now I need to pack, check out of this hotel, meet my friend the Peking Duck and go to a Chinese class. We fly to Kunming this evening. I hope to have five or ten minutes to write something a little more illuminating than this.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Greetings from Beijing...

I'm mostly settled in at my run-down but charming hotel in the hutongs. The weather here is unseasonably warm, making me wonder if I will even need the Sorel boots I schlepped in my minimal luggage - which, in spite of my planning and best intentions, is still too damn heavy.

I hadn't made many plans for my few days in Beijing but the days are already pretty filled up, so I'd better get going. Chinese class now, blogger dinner later. Tomorrow, a late CNY dinner with a friend (I need to find presents!) and if I can swing it, I'll drop by the latest Beijing Tweet-up.

Friday or thereabouts, I set off for Kunming. After that, I will work my way north to Xinjiang. I will, internet access permitting, keep you posted.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Packing for carry-on...

Like anyone who has done a fair amount of traveling, I have a weird relationship with luggage and how much stuff I carry on a given trip. The first time I went to China, well, to begin with, I didn't know I would be traveling to China. Instead I was going to Switzerland for three months, to live and work in the sort of Swiss equivalent to Walmart.

I started out with way too much crap. I really had no idea what I was doing. I was twenty years old; I'd just had wisdom tooth surgery and was doped up on codeine, and I was going to a foreign country to work when I barely could speak the language — German, which in point of fact the locals didn't really speak. Swiss German is a whole other deal. But I digress..

I had a hundred dollars in my pocket. That was it. I had this wacky backpack, back in the days before internal frame backpacks had been invented, it had this "hi-tech" polymer frame that was supposed to be way cool and which also broke almost immediately. Hell, it was cheap. I had a sleeping bag (not hi-tech, the thing was HUGE) and a cassette recorder that I'd bought with baby-sitting money in elementary school. This was before iPods, people. This was before Walkman. This was 1979.

I flew to Zurich. I somehow found a youth hostel. I honestly don't remember how. It wasn't like I made reservations or anything like that. I just kind of blundered my way to it. I took some kind of light rail to get there, and I had to walk a lot, and all I remember is that I had so much crap that I could barely carry it, I had some weird flimsy light orange day-pack that had the tape-recorder and a bunch of other stuff, and it was not designed to carry heavy things over any kind of distance, and I remember thinking, I am not going to make it, this is really painful, why do I have all this shit?

Regarding the youth hostel, what I remember is meeting some nice Europeans who had really great pot. I believe it was from Africa, or so they said. We smoked together and I got so stoned that my heart started racing, and I honestly thought that I might die. I remember sitting in the bathroom with my book, and I wish I could remember what that book was. I don't think it was Ursula LeGuin's "The Dispossessed" (I read that later), and I don't think it was Doris Lessing's "The Golden Notebook." It was something weird and intense and profound, or maybe it just seemed that way because this pot was so strong I was practically hallucinating. I just sat there in the white tile restroom, trying to read my book, hoping I wasn't going to have a heart attack in this alien environment, with a hundred dollars in my pocket - well, less by that point. It's another one of those things that when I think about, I realize how different the world is now. No autotellers. No credit cards. Just a hundred bucks cash down to sixty or so.

I had to get to Basel, Switzerland, where my job was. I wasn't exactly clear on how I was going to get there, but one thing I'd already decided - I was not going to carry all that fucking crap all that way.

The sleeping bag was the first thing to go. I gave it to the nice Europeans who'd gotten me high.

Working in Basel was a whole experience I don't think about that much because of what happened after - going to China as a part of the first wave of Americans to live and work there since the 1949 Revolution. Basel is interesting in its own right, though, and one of these days I'm going to get back there, give the place its due.

The reason I went to Basel, and then to China, was my high school friend Paul. My whole relationship with Paul is one of those things that is so complicated I can't get into it here and yet is ultimately so simple that I could reduce it to a few sentences.

Because he's dead, and I'm not. So I get to write the history.

What I can say here is that the two of us were a dozen miles apart in Switzerland, during that summer of 1979. He worked at the groovy Goethe-influenced theater that didn't pay much money, and I worked at Swiss Walmart, because I had to make money in order to support myself. This seems to have been an essential dynamic in our relationship.

His parents were members of the US/China Peoples' Friendship Association, and they traveled to China as a part of a teacher's tour in 1978. While they were there, they heard that the Peoples' Republic of China wanted to hire Americans to teach English, for the first time since the Revolution. On a near whim they applied. They got the jobs. And on a near whim of my own, I agreed to go there with Paul to visit them.

It was all very complicated. We had to get special visas. I was Paul's "fiancee." We traveled from Switzerland to Rome to Thailand, and then to Hong Kong.

From Hong Kong, we took a fancy special train to Guangzhou. What I remember about Guangzhou is that the taxi drivers only turned on their lights at intersections. They also honked their horns every time they came to an intersection. I also had one of the most amazing meals I've ever had in my life there. Which was ironic in a way, because at that time in China, not many restaurants had survived the Cultural Revolution, and I would later have a lot of very bad food. Except in Sichuan. But again, I digress.

I could tell you about the train ride from Guangzhou to Beijing. I could tell you about how we argued to be allowed to ride hard sleepers, which were cheaper than soft sleepers. It wasn't done at the time. Foreigners were segregated - and charged extra - whenever possible. Somehow we managed it. Hard sleepers are arranged like this: lower, middle and upper berths, open compartments, one set of hard pallets facing the other. It was a 36 hour train ride to Beijing, and we were such a rarity that all during the journey, passengers would file past our pallets, like they were in line for the best ride at Disneyland, eager to have a look at the mysterious foreigners who had somehow materialized among them.

What I noticed was, there were an awful lot of very tall Chinese men on this train, dressed like everyone else in PLA-green Mao suits. It turned out we shared the train with the Chinese national basketball team.

What was supposed to be a three week stay in Beijing turned into half a year. A lot of stuff happened during that time. We both taught a term of Conversational English, for one. That's the biggest thing and the easiest to summarize, but it was far from the only thing.

Beijing during this period was not an easy place to be. Not like now, with Starbucks on every other corner, and cell phones and the internet. And more than that - now you can have Chinese friends. You can go to peoples' houses, and nobody cares. There are bars and restaurants and stores. Whatever negatives you can cite about the Chinese government these days - and you can certainly cite a string of them - you can lead a normal life in Beijing.

It wasn't like that then. It's hard to understand if you didn't experience it. You were constantly monitored. Constantly spied upon. Everything you did was fraught with a terrible significance.

Once more, I digress.

After our five months in Beijing, Paul and I ended up traveling for a month. We did this mostly on our own, which simply was not done in China at that time - February 1980.

What I remember was how cold we were, much of the time. There wasn't central heating back then. Most buildings were warmed by coal, if that. I remember being in Xian, wandering the medieval streets, and finding a vendor selling sweet potatoes cooked in an oil can. We didn't want to eat the sweet potatoes, we just wanted to carry them, because they were warm. Hey, I'm a Southern California native. We don't DO cold. It was quite an adjustment.

I mention all this only because, we'd heard at some point in our journey of a place in the southwest called Kunming, "The City Where it is Always Spring." The longer we traveled, the better it sounded. Hell ya. Get me to this place where it is always spring.

We got there. The journey involved a crazy Swede who wore short denim shorts while the two of us were fucking freezing in our pants and long underwear, whose Chinese was good enough to connive us into a Chinese dormitory hotel at a time when this was simply Not Done if you were foreigners. We conned our way into a local bathhouse too.

Kunming was warm. I had a great meal there, a bowl of noodles that cost maybe 40 cents tops, one of my favorite meals the whole time I was in China. Plus it was Spring Festival, Chinese New Year. February 1980, and the first time (I think) since the Cultural Revolution that people were allowed to celebrate in traditional ways. There was a tiny dragon parade. Lots of firecrackers. And a total solar eclipse. That was pretty amazing. We sat out in a rice paddy and watched the eclipse, with two other foreign teachers, a couple, who were having their own personal China meltdown (it happened a lot back then, because it was hard to be there, and you were spied upon, and nothing worked right, and at times it felt like everyone was trying to fuck with you and make your life hard), and the woman, I forget her name, practically had a nervous breakdown on the spot because of all the firecrackers going off, and Paul, meanwhile, had a horrible case of the runs and had to keep running off to some outhouse hut in the rice paddy to relieve himself.

But we saw a total solar eclipse. And it was cool.

The day before that, Paul and I had been at the Stone Forest. At the time, this was a natural wonder in a rural area, populated by what the Chinese government likes to call "Ethnic minorities." We both thought it was a pretty spectacular place. The rock formations - "typical karst structures," according to the signage, whatever that meant - gray stone pillars thrusting out of red earth, emerald green grass, so many of them that it really did look like they'd grown there, strange stone shoots in a fertile field.

We both loved it there. We returned that evening to the guesthouse, where the other guests were Hong Kong students, and we were entertained by "ethnic minority dancers." And then we all had to sing. By this point in our China stay, Paul and I were familiar with this obligation, and when asked to provide an example of "American Folk Music," we sang "Rocky Raccoon", sitting around the fire ring with the "ethnic minority" performers and the Hong Kong students.

It was my birthday.

So...some thirty years later...I am heading back to China for a month. I've been back to China plenty of times since that first trip, but this one is different. I'm going to be traveling for most of the trip, for one. So I've had to think very carefully about what I'm packing, and how I will carry it.

For another, I'm going back to Kunming for the first time. And I'm going to the Stone Forest.

My friend Paul, a year or so before he died, when we were still speaking to each other, said to me, "If I die, you know what I would like? I would like my ashes spread at the Stone Forest."

And I said, "Sure. Okay. Yeah. I'll do that."

After Paul died, I went to his memorial. In spite of the fact that I was furious at him, that at the end he'd hated me. I went because we'd shared too much for me not to have gone. And besides, I was the winner here, wasn't I? I was still alive.

It's odd that I can't remember exactly how this happened, or maybe not. I've always had a pretty bad memory for events (as opposed to my eerily excellent memory for factoids, foreign languages and songs). I can't remember what sort of memorial there was for Paul. I can't remember anything about it. I can remember the commemoration some of his best friends, including me, gave him. We'd all been so close to him and so hurt by him. We got together in one friend's apartment, and we lit candles and said our angry pieces, about how we'd loved this person and how angry we were at him. I think we drank a lot of tequila.

Whatever the memorial was that Paul's dad held (Paul's mother had died some years before, which is another story), at the end of it, Paul's dad said to me, "Paul told me that he wanted some of his ashes to be spread at the Stone Forest. He said you promised him you would."


I've had these ashes in a wooden box for years. Sitting on the top shelf of my bookcase. I've had to make a list of the things I need to remember to take on this trip, and somewhere in the middle is scrawled, "Paul's ashes!"

Don't forget the ashes, you know? That would be lame.

I climbed up on my library ladder and retrieved the box an hour or so ago. It's the first time I've looked at it in years. A carved wooden box, one of those cheap carved boxes from India with the flimsy hinges held together by a penny nail.

The cremains themselves are in a Baggy. Ziplock, thankfully.

They look like cigar ash combined with burnt-down barbecue coals. I know this because at one point, right after Paul died, when I first was given the ashes, I was so angry at him, and so gleeful, so joyous that I'd survived, I opened the box, I opened the Baggy, and I put my fingers inside, felt the residue, the unexpected grittiness of it.

I'm alive, and you're not.

That was years ago.

Anyway, I'm going back to Kunming now. It's time. It's my birthday.

It's going to be very cold, and still, I don't want to carry too much. I've had to learn that lesson, over and over. I'm going to be on and off airplanes, in and out of trains, and I'm not going to be staying in any one place for too long. So, I've tried to pack carefully. Only what I can carry. Only what I need.

But I have to take Paul's ashes. I promised I would.

It's not like I have room for the carved wooden box. So I put the Baggy in another Baggy. I mean, the last thing I want is for the ashes to spill inside my luggage. That would be, well, messy, and weird. But what do you do with a Baggy full of cremains? I don't want to put them in my toiletries kit. I'm already living dangerously by not putting my 3 ounce bottles and under of liquids into the proper 2 gallon ziplock bag (for whatever reason, I have not been stopped for lack of this for my last six trips through LAX). Do I, I don't know, stuff them inside a sock? Put them in a ceremonial envelope? Isn't that asking for trouble? Are there some kind of laws governing the transportation of human remains across international borders? Do I even want to know?

So, after double-bagging the cremains, I've just tucked them in the main compartment of my suitcase, beneath a pair of socks. I'm trying to practice my explanation in Chinese, should someone ask me about them. "Wode lao pengyoude gugede" uh...something something. The word for "ashes" that I can look up involves burnt trees, and I'm not sure if that translates.

But if nothing else, I've got everything down to two small bags. Down to what I can carry.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Good news...

...for my writer buddy Elizabeth Loupas and her wonderful book, The Second Duchess. Rather than my spilling the beans here, why don't you check out her post?

"Everything for me, nothing for you"

I'm pretty sure that's the mantra of the robber barons who've been looting this country for the past near 30 years...

I'll post something fun and writer-y later, I promise.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

If I don't have a job, how am I supposed to shop?

For years, we've been hearing about how Americans are spendthrifts, don't save enough, buy too much crap.

Turns out if we don't shop, the terrorists win.
Americans are hunkering down and saving more. For a recession-battered economy, it couldn't be happening at a worse time.

Economists call it the "paradox of thrift." What's good for individuals — spending less, saving more — is bad for the economy when everyone does it.

On Friday, the government reported Americans' savings rate, as a percentage of after-tax incomes, rose to 2.9 percent in the last three months of 2008. That's up sharply from 1.2 percent in the third quarter and less than 1 percent a year ago.

Like a teeter-totter, when the savings rate rises, spending falls. The latter accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity. When consumers refuse to spend, companies cut back, layoffs rise, people pinch pennies even more and the recession deepens.

The downward spiral has hammered the retail and manufacturing industries.
I have a kind of wacky idea. Why don't we try rebuilding our economy on sound fundamentals, like, you know, working on our crumbling infrastructure, mass transit, energy grid, stuff like that? And invest in jobs, so that people have the money to buy things?

Just a thought.