Thursday, December 22, 2011


Ah, at last.
About time.
The world is finally coming to its senses and going back 'round the other way, to sunlight, then warmth, and eventually leaves on the trees.
At least one hopes.
I will test it in the morning, see if it's on track.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Are we going yet?

Overheard somewhere in the course of the day:
"We have the right to bear arms. The French have the right to strike."

10:20. boarding starts for the flight from Paris to Minneapolis. Getting through security was slow, but not horribly so. An ordinarily crowded pre-holiday weekend. No delay has been posted. So far the strike of several airport security companies has not been too bad.
10:55. five minutes late for departure, they announce a delay of 15 minutes for the 30-odd people still lacking.
11:15. aw, we'll give them 20 minutes more.
11:50. Passengers Smith, Jones, and Wesson are to notify the crew immediately if they are on the plane. If not, they will be considered to have missed the connection, and their baggage will be chucked off.
11:55. waiting for clearance from the controllers
12:20. a "security issue" is announced, and we're warned we will be deplaning soon. So don't get into those carryons!
13:00. everybody off! Take everything with you. Every last thing.
We're taken to a holding area on the way to the passport check leading into France, where about 300 of us stand around for an hour before they start running us through a new security check. There's nowhere to sit. There's no bathroom. It's forbidden to use cell phones but many people do anyway. A generous fellow passenger lets me send an email to the folks, though I don't quite know what to say. I could just make my connection still. Or I might be spending the night in Minneapolis. Or something in between.
Slowly, very slowly they run us through a new check. Very thorough, shoes off and everything (I've never seen that in Europe, only the States), every last electronic item out of bags and into the tray.
14:40. The last passengers make it back to their seats.
15:22. Taxiing. Off we go at last.
15:22 to 0:30 the next day. No security problems arise on our flight. Nothing exciting at all. A job well done? Or a waste of time?
On arrival they have a whole table set up with new boarding passes for those who have missed connections, very easy to find yours, very efficient. Mine says I'll be leaving for St Louis in just under two hours. Time for a phone call, a glass of wine, and a bit of blogging.

Monday, December 19, 2011

11. And then it was the last day.

In the morning I have some time to kill, so I plug the camera's card into the computer to start sifting through all my photos.

It shows me one photo, and then stops. The whole system hangs up. My photos are gone. There's not on the computer; they're not on the card when I put it back in the camera. They're just gone. 600 pictures, oh well! I could cry.

One of my friend Lai Sheng's fellow graduate students picks me up at the hotel to take me to his apartment, where I can leave my luggage for the day's explorations. My flight is at midnight, dinner with Lai Sheng and his family at 6. I've got the rest of the day to go back to the fabulously decorated Chen museum with my camera, and time to follow up on a lead on a shop selling books in english, in the hopes of coming away with a photo book of the city or the region.

First thing: Miss Yuan has only been to Lai Sheng's once, and is not at all sure how to get back there. She phones him three times on our way, and we finally do arrive to the beaming smiles of his mother and the contented cooing of his baby son. Such a fat-cheeked baby! Suddenly I realize that I've left my gorgeous painting at the hotel. The box with the scroll is too long formy luggage, and somehow I didn't notice not having everything when I left. So I have to go back for it, and Miss Yuan has to go back to work. Will I be able to find my way back to the apartment on my own?


Good question.

I have his phone number, and take careful notes on my way back to the metro station. His alley is the one with the big key sign on the main road. There's a guy with a sewing machine halfway down it. Turn right up the road, past the electric company, past the Happy Springtime Hotel, to the T intersection by the shiny new womens hospital. Right again down the hill to the metro. Easy as pie.

Get my painting, drop it off with the grandmother who only speaks the local language, and out into the fairly sunny day.

All this running around has worn me out. At the Chen place I marvel at the decoration through my zoom lens and spend quite a lot of time just hanging around. I had thought to go around the city, taking new photos of everything I liked so much - the Liurong Temple, People playing hackysack in the park, the view of the city from the top of a hill.

But I don't have much heart for it. I walk back to the temple, which isn't far from the Chen museum if you don't get lost, and spend some time there, enjoying the real quiet now that it's mid-week and most people are at work. I feel much more out of place this time, with the grounds not bursting with people everywhere.

After that, I just want to find the bookstore and be done with it all. And I find it, but they don't have any books full of photos at all, at least none with captions in anything but Chinese. The English language section targets Chinese people working on their English - lots of pulp fiction and language books. There is a small section with travel guides, but they're all for Beijing or Shanghai. I buy a book by a european guy who spent two years travelling around the country quite recently. To compare notes.

Back to the apartment they're laying on a grand buffet for me, and I'm famished. It's wonderful, simple, food. Just never mind the seaweed soup.

Li family chicken

Lai Sheng heard from Miss Yuan about my photograph disaster, and we spend an hour recovering my pictures. They're in there. The card seems to have picked up a virus (where??), but he gets almost everything back for me. I'm so happy!

Off to the airport on the metro. It takes a while, but we get there. Once airside I have an hour to kill, and a last fistfull of yuan to get rid of, so I spend most of the time wandering around the gift shops, amazed at the prices as much as 10 times what you'd pay elsewhere. And then, what's this? A simple t-shirt with a great dragon printed on it, just my size, and just right to empty my pockets of yuan. Deal!

The view from the window
I'm settled into my seat, blanket up to my chin and eyeshade on, a good hour into the flight when I realize I've left my painting behind once again. No going back for it this time!

Sunday, December 11, 2011

10. Guangzhou Toured

Then we go to the Chen family dynasty museum. This place I’ve got to come back to with the camera, hence the photos. This huge compound with its rooms open to the courtyards is where the Chens used to run their empire. The museum aspect is pretty ordinary, but the decoration on the buildings is pretty impressive. Those are all real people and events and legends up along the edges of the roofs and carved into the wall panels. I wonder if anybody can still read the whole story of this building from the walls. I wonder if the story is compiled into a picture book. A picture book in English. In fact, I wonder if there are picture books in English at all. Most any place I visit, there’s always picture books in a dozen languages at the gift shops. I’ve been looking for some. Aside from the photographer in Zhangjiajie, I have yet to find one.

Time for lunch. We have dim sum for lunch, inviting the driver in order to diversify the dishes ordered. Just one bit of this! Just taste that! It’s mostly delicious, but my stomach is groaning and easily upset from eating like this for days on end. It’s not polite for Chinese hosts not to push food on you, but it’s not polite for Western tourists to refuse, so in the end I’ve got another stomachache.

Happily, after lunch we get to do some walking.

We’re in a large shopping district, and in getting to our restaurant we passed lots of shops with jade jewelry and tiny beautiful teapots and lots of stuff like that that I’d be interested in taking home as a gift or a souvenir for myself. So I’m happy we’re going to walk down one of the long pedestrian streets lined with shops.

It’s an interesting walk along a nice broad and clean sidewalk dotted with sculptures. The shops are full of the things you find in any mall, however. Shoes, clothes, electronic gadgetry, that kind of thing. It’s the Made-in-China I don’t shop for at home, and I’m not going to start now just because it’s half price. All these clothes - I have not once noticed anyone in the street whose clothes made me wonder if I could get some. Where's all the beautiful silk?

We stroll up and down for half an hour, chatting and people-watching, but I’m not tempted to shop, so we’re back to our starting point in record time for a tour. My guide says this part usually takes more than an hour and they often do just the first block when she has a dozen clients. If they went to the end like we just did, it would take the rest of the afternoon.

Next it’s time to visit the Guangdong regional museum. And the TV tower! We’ll have a great view of the tv tower from there. This is a big point with my guide. I just want to take my time strolling around the museum and perhaps find a western-style toilet, because my stomach is rebelling against too much lunch. In fact, I’d rather we skip dinner, or at least have it much later than planned.

Oh, no, No skipping the dinner! Part of the tour! We have reservations at a special restaurant. Very good seafood. And we can’t have it much later than planned, either, because the driver has to finish his day.

Well... can we have some simple steamed fish? Nothing fried? I swear I will have just a little taste.

So I linger in the museum. But it closes at 5 and there’s no lingering any longer than that. When we go outside, the huge fountain on the grounds is having its hourly water show, so we watch that. I like the sign that announces the water show pond is “like a gigantic sailing ship carrying the pragmatic and struggling Guangdong people toward the ocean full of passion”. And another “Excellent Parking Lot”, and further on “Outstanding Garden Path”. These signs are merely typical. This glorious, heavenly hyperbole seems to be just how the Chinese express themselves. It’s normal.

No, it’s weird.

My guide does a lot of talking, which is apparently something she doesn’t always do on her tours. Usually, it’s just give a set spiel at each site and then let the clients talk among themselves. But I don’t have anyone else to talk to, so she fills in a lot. We talk about the myriad good luck charms and rituals all over town. Luck is very important in Chinese culture; it’s tightly linked to happiness and wealth. Which themselves seem to be inextricably intertwined. Again and again through the day, she equates happiness with money, and money with happiness.

I failed to write it down, but even the words for happiness and money seem to be linked. The same term can mean either one. The money=happiness thing is part of the foundation of chineseness, and a lot of what other people have said along this trip makes more sense now that I see this equation. Like this TV tower. It’s a sign of the people’s wealth, and that makes them happy. They don’t understand that it bores me.

Friday, December 9, 2011

9. Back to Guangzhou

I was hoping that the hotel in Guangzhou getting back from my tour of the countryside would be situated someplace more interesting, but it’s the same one. Way out at the convention center next to nothing much. Awww. I’ve seen this hotel. It’s boring.

But the bathwater is hot and the towels fluffy.

In the morning BIT is offering me the one-day tour of the city for free. The least they can do after making a mint off me with the cancelled trip. They must be raking it in, these guys, between what westerners expect to pay for a trip and what it actually costs. A guide and a driver for the day are well within the margins.

Somehow in getting ready, I manage to leave my camera outside of my bag. Which is not such a bad thing. Sometimes when you’re touring you spend so much attention getting pictures of stuff that you don’t pay much attention to what’s actually going on. I’m fine with a day of paying more attention to remembering stuff, not counting on having it in pictures for later.

The other effect, though, is to speed things up considerably, which gives us a really fast pace - the other speed factor being that there’s nobody else on this tour. With a group it takes so much longer just to walk down the block for every body added.

We see some things that I wandered past on my own, but they’re on the schedule so we’re going back.

First - the Sun Yat Sen Memorial. Very pretty from the outside. Inside it’s just a big auditorium. A nice one. They’re busy setting up a show for this evening, or we could go up on the stage. Darn.

Sun Yet Sen, though, is more than just a local hero. He’s the father of modern China, the one who got all of the modernization going before Mao. Now that that era is gone, people are getting back to just how great SYS was.

Second - Yue Xiu park for another look at the 5-goat statue. It’s about the same the second time. None of the goats have moved. There’s still a huge crowd of people playing hackey-sack, only instead of little beanbags, they bounce things that look like badminton birdies with a spring. We’re ahead of schedule, so we spend some time playing. It’s a lot harder than it looks. You have to get your foot under there in time, and not send it off into the bushes. People play this in groups of half a dozen or so, and it’s great exercise.

I think it would be neat to practice at home, so I buy one. This lets me discover that, like Sam, my guide is not interested in helping me get a good price. 10% off is all. That’s ridiculous, but it’s only in hindsight that I resolve to argue a fair price.

After that we visit the site of the tomb of a very early dynasty that was unearthed only in the last couple of decades when they started digging the foundations for a new block of apartments. Second century or something if I remember (I’m 3 weeks late with the blog!) correctly. It’s a small place, but nicely done. You can visit the excavated tomb itself, which now is just empty space, the coffins and afterlife supplies having been removed.

What I find most interesting is not the site itself as the fact that they now know where to look for other sites from the same era, and they’re deliberately not doing it because the stuff they unearthed here degraded instantly when exposed. They want to come up with a way of saving the artifacts before losing them, before opening the next tomb. Which is refreshingly thoughtful in go-go-go China.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

8. Tianmen Mountain

It’s nearly 2 when we start up the long, long lift to Tianmen Mountain (just Tianmen, not Tiananmen). The day is smoggy, as I suspect most days are around here, and the humidity has burned off as much as it’s going to. Sam was marveling at the good weather earlier, certain that the lack of clouds meant we’d have a spectacular aerial view. But no, visibility isn’t more than a mile or so, and the city is soon lost in the haze.

Down below we can see small farms, one after the other. As an American, it’s funny to see all these small, personal farms - where’s the industrial-scale agriculture? The miles and miles of monoculture? Coming soon, probably, but for today it seems that most of the food around here comes from these smallholdings.

At the top, there are two areas to see. One is the highest peak in the region, at the end of the 2-part lift, and the other is the keyhole formation, for which we’ll go back to the intermediate cable car station and take a bus to.

At the high peak, they’ve constructed a walkway around the cliff, a sort of single-lane tourist highway. It’s a nice view, with lesser peaks marching off into the bluish haze and the city a tan smudge in the distance. Red flags are tied to many of the overhanging trees, carrying wishes and prayers, giving the whole place a festive yet reflective air. The path goes on around the contours of the peak, weaving in and out of the gorges. As you go around the light changes, making each new corner rounded a new perspective.

Sam, however, finds this all pretty much the same. We’ve been here 20 minutes already: I’ve seen it, haven’t I?

Well, no, not if the light keeps changing! What’s around the other side? I want to keep going around the entire loop, but he tells me we have wonderful things to see at the other site. He says this like we’ll miss something is we don’t hurry away, in spite of our both noticing several times already that with only one person to usher around the tour has been going lickety-split. I don’t require a lot of explanation. But he’s the one who knows what’s yet to be seen, so I give up on poking around one last corner and follow him back down.

It’s a slow bus ride to the next destination. This keyhole that the Chinese are so excited about is a rock that fell off of one peak and got wedged between that peak and its neighbor, making a little keyhole at the pass between them. There’s some mystical explanation I don’t retain that makes it so popular. On our way up the switchbacks in the bus, he tells me all about how they’re building a giant new 5-star hotel at the base (yep, nice construction site they’ve got going - really adds to the panorama), as well as an elevator to whisk people up from there to the top. Ah, so that’s the construction stuff that’s marring the view through the hole.

He’ll wait for me here if I desire to climb the 990 steps to the top.

Of course I’m climbing to the top. I didn’t give up on my views from the high peak just to stop at the parking lot/souvenir gallery/construction site and turn around.

From the bottom the stairs look quite easy, and the bottom section is. The steps are deep enough to set a size 8 foot on. But soon the rise is too steep to maintain that, and the steps are only about 6 inches deep. For these steep sections there are extra guardrails to hold on to, as much to keep you from succumbing to vertigo as to help against the inevitable collisions with other tourists when everybody’s looking at their feet. Every so often there’s a rest area off to the side.

Aw, come on. 990 steps is not that many.

At the top there’s a shop that will sell you a red prayer ribbon or a padlock or a photo of yourself holding the keyhole open. Then there’s a little shrine to tie your prayer to, and put a lock on love. The fountain has been drained because of all the construction going on for the elevator. In fact, half the surface up here is given over to this construction, which is quite a distraction from any remaining natural beauty.

Down the other side is not the verdant gateway to the mountainous hinterland so much as another stairway under construction and a dim view through the smog of further peaks.

What I like the most about this place is the huge accumulation of prayer flags and joss sticks at the Buddhist shrine at the bottom of the stairs.

And that’s it. We’re done with the tour, and we have hours to kill before my flight back to Guangzhou.

Why, oh why, then, did you rush me through the parts I was actually interested in spending more time at!

Well, let’s see a bit of the city.

What’s there to see?

Er, not much. Anything you want to shop for?

Nothing in particular.

So we spend some time wandering around the city center until dark and it’s “time” for dinner. I dislike eating so early, but it’s on the schedule to eat now, so fine. We have a reservation for traditional hot pot. Which is very nice, once you get used to just setting aside the parts of chicken not usually considered food.

Though of course once we’re done we still have time to kill but now the lively market has packed up (why not linger longer in the market and eat later???). So we go back to where we had lunch, a place owned by Sam’s friends and where we stashed the luggage for the afternoon, and hang around sipping tea and chatting before it’s reasonable to head for the airport.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

7. Baifeng Lake

In the morning Sam says that we’ll be finished with the items on the tour by noon, and proposes, for a modest extra fee, to take me to some additional, really spectacular sights.

Um, excuse me? The tour is supposed to be two full days. What do you mean there’s only a half day today? We’re supposed to see a lake, and a forest. All day.

Well, with Louis having to leave early, he kind of rushed the program yesterday, and we’ve already done the forest. That was the bit at the end yesterday. We’ll go to the lake this morning, but it’s a boat tour with a set itinerary and there’s not much else to do there.

Why don’t we just go back to the forest? The sign said the one trail was 5.6 km - I only saw a tiny bit!

Yes, but there’s a ticket to get in, and we’ve already done that. There’s a great place for you to see that’s not on this tour. It doesn’t cost much - I just need to pay the driver and the entrance fee. It isn’t much.

And it’s not really so much in western terms. Sam is such a nice guy and he’s so charming and informative that fine, I’ll pay the supplement. But I know I’m getting ripped off, and that puts an unpleasant aftertaste to everything.

Sigh. On to the lake.

Walking up to the lake, which is in another park with an entrance fee and paved paths, we pass by a cage of monkeys. There are signs saying beware of monkeys, but they don’t come out much in the cold season, so there’s a cage full of them to make sure you get your regulation monkey sighting. It’s everything I hate about zoos, too. Three macaques are housed in a concrete box with a wire front and roof, with one tree trunk for decoration. There’s not enough space. There’s nothing for them to do. Just bare prison walls.

A little farther up is a different kind of zoo, a tiny Buddhist monastery has its temple just a hundred meters up the concrete path. It’s beautifully peaceful, but I’d hate to be here in the high season with the chattering crowd poking into everything. The dormitory is much farther up the steep gorge, in the no-go zone.

Now for the lake itself. This lake, and the spectacular waterfall visible from where we entered the park, used to be just a pond and a dribble. Now that tourism is so popular, though, they diverted more flow into the lake so it stays fuller, and engineered a larger hole for the outlet so the waterfall is bigger. It’s all for the cameras. There is no other use for this lake - no fishing, no drinking (upstream), nobody lives along the shore.

The tour of the lake is like all the other places we’ve been. You start at the one boat dock/souvenir shop, take one of the boats for the set tour up and down the lake, and end at the other dock/souvenir shop for the walk down the other stairway to the park entrance. I am the only anglophone tourist present, so we get on a boat half full of Koreans. Sam doesn’t have much to translate of the tour babble, even though the boat’s guide rarely shuts up for more than a few seconds. Apparently she’s telling us how this peak looks like a rabbit, and that one like a monk. Apparently this is very common all over China.

At two picturesque spots, there are small barges moored, and these are all part of the show. The first houses a woman in traditional garb who comes out and sings for the passing tour boats. Everybody applauds and takes pictures of her. The second one has a man who sings. Our boat does not pass close enough to toss money to them; they’re paid as part of the ticket price.

Once we get down the long, long stairway back to the level of the park entrance, the path cleverly goes through a long gallery of souvenir shops - no shortcuts! - before bringing us in front of the waterfall. There’s a path alongside the lower part of the falls that leads up to a pagoda next to the bottom of the main falls. I have to see everything, so I go up.


If you just stay at the bottom you can stay in the fiction of the natural scene. Well, even there you have to try and ignore the cut stones and all the cables for the lights and suchlike. But you can do it. Go up the path, and all the artifice of the scene is laid bare. It’s like Disneyland.

That’s all for the lake. Time to pick up the luggage and head for the city about 40 minutes away, where we have lunch. From here we take the longest cable car in the world (8 km) up to a different bit of the Zhangjiajie mountain area, for a short walk around and then a look at a natural keyhole formation between two peaks. Sam is immensely proud of this keyhole. Just last year a formation of jets flew through it. And then some American in a wingsuit flew through it. And a famous Chinese singer went up to the site and discovered religion. She’s now China’s most famous Buddhist. Now they are building an incredible elevator that will whisk tourists up there in just minutes, avoiding the 990 steps now necessary.

Sounds great.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

6. Zhangjiajie mountains

After lunch we’re off to the Zhangjiajie National Forest. The entrance is impressive, flanked by a gigantic bus parking lot (mercifully relatively empty) and faced by a bustling row of souvenir shops. You have to buy tickets to go into the area, or have a permit to live or work there, which is one of the ways they control tourism.

Which is a really good thing, after all.

Like in the Yellow Dragon cave, there are paved walkways and fences everywhere, and no going off on your own. I love to go off on my own. It’s a constraint to always have to stay with Sam & Louis, to never get away and just explore what catches my fancy. But if we were allowed to just go anywhere, the millions of people would soon have the whole countryside trampled into nothing. There would be nothing left to tour. It’s this, or nothing.

Ok, I’ll take this.

I kind of like Chinese landscape painting, the ones where the mountains are all vertical and the trees are hanging on sideways and the tiny houses are stuck on with stilts. But I always thought that was an exaggeration.

Not so! The real mountains are right here in Zhangjiajie. They are that steep. The mist really does make them mysterious. You really could put a rope bridge between this peak and that one.

Today the weather is fine. Louis is very very happy it isn’t raining for his one-day tour. We spent the heavily overcast morning in the cave, and by afternoon a lot of it has burned off. Though it isn’t exactly clear, the sky is a lot bluer than it was in Guangzhou.

It’s too bad Sam doesn’t give us more time to walk the trails. Right at the centers where the tour buses stop there’s a great density of tourists and an array of souvenir shops, but we see signs for trails that go 1 to 5 km. Probably down the longer trails you could get a moment or two with no other people in sight, but we don’t have time for this luxury if we’re going to finish the programmed sights by sundown. And Sam promises that the next sight is even better, so off we go.

At one stop he gives us 25 minutes to wander as we please, and after rushing from one viewpoint to the next for photos I find myself with 5 minutes to haggle over souvenirs. I’ll discover later that I should have done all my souvenir shopping out here in the sticks where things are much cheaper (especially jade - this is one of the main areas where jade items are made), but for now I pick up just two bracelets, and a metal statue of a horse that I can’t resist. Before leaving Guangzhou, Laisheng told me I should start bargaining by offering about 20% of the asking price, but the vendor’s first price is to me so ridiculously cheap that it’s all I can do to not jump at the deal right off. I offer half, and we end up at about 2/3 of the initial price. I’m happy. The vendor has made a handsome profit. Everything is good.

Sam has different advice for bargaining, though. We come upon a stand where a woman is selling books of her husband’s photography. They live here, and he’d be at the shop if he weren’t out with the camera. They’re nice books, and I want two. According to Sam, 20% off is really pushing as low as possible. He’s more on the vendor’s side than mine.
Near the end of the afternoon we have a choice between heading back down to the base of the peaks for a tour through the forest, and staying up on top longer & visiting an authentic ethnic minority village. It’s a tough choice, actually, because if we choose the village, by the time we get to the forest the sun will be awfully low. And I do love nature more than towns.

But we choose the village. Go on, a little culture!

Just a little. We see not so much a village, as a museum. We’re taken through a series of dioramas depicting traditional village life as it was a generation ago. I’m sure if we saw their real homes they’d be full of modern stuff. They things they’re producing the old way, they produce not to use, but to sell to us the tourists. It’s a strange situation, this village-turned-zoo. You can even buy popcorn! Which I did, just to taste. They serve it sweet. Otherwise it’s just ordinary popcorn.

Down at the bottom, at the end of a ride on the world’s tallest elevator, is a wonderful area with paths leading down two of the narrow gorges between the limestone peaks. Near the parking lot, vendors line both sides of the path, but farther on it’s nice and peaceful. Not many people are left in the sinking light, and when Sam gives us 20 minutes to wander, I zip down the path along a stream, noting the vendors - yes, I’d like some jade from this place, a scarf from that one... The path is enticing, and doesn’t seem to end. On and on I follow the happy stream, looking up at the sun on the peaks, hoping for a more open view through the thick trees. Eventually I figure my 20 minutes is more than up, and I’m right. By the time I get back, the sun is gone, the vendors have all packed up, and Sam & Louis are just about the only ones hanging around the parking lot.

Then it’s back to town for dinner. They eat very early in China! We go to a local restaurant, a huge place full of people, very loud. There’s a wedding being celebrated, and most of the crowd is there for the traditional 3 days of feasting. Lunch was deliciously spicy, but frankly a little strong for our tender tastebuds, so Louis and I ask for just a little less hot this time.

The space here is more like a meeting hall than a restaurant, and there’s a sort of stage at one end where some people are sitting at a table covered in painted scrolls and paints and stuff. It’s a local artist showing his work (and nodding off a good deal of the time), and his family is there to help with the selling.

In fact, I quite like one of his paintings. It’s a serene scene of bamboo, with a couple of small birds. The colors are just perfect; mostly black and grey or green-grey, on an ivory background with just a splash of red on the birds. Subdued but not excessively. Exactly the sort of zen thing I need in my office.

How much?

350 yuan.

Hmm, that’s, er.... (about 40€) Hey, that’s a deal for a beautiful painting about 18 inches by 40 on a silk scroll with its own beautiful pattern and all. But I will bargain! 350 is much more than it’s worth in China. Though with Sam being more on the vendor’s side than mine, we end up at 300, but ok.

For the evening’s entertainment I’m invited to attend a show of traditional ethnic minority music and dancing. Really spectacular! Ah, no thanks. It’s been a long day, and I’m looking forward to a long, hot, bubbly soak in my luxury bathtub. Besides, Louis is off to the airport so I’d not have anyone to commiserate with at the show.

Friday, December 2, 2011

5. Scenery

 Some scenery shots to tide you over until I get more story written.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

4. Zhangjiajie

This is a 3-day tour. Yeah, right!

BIT, guys; don't ever, ever travel with BIT unless you want to pay far, far too much for far, far less than promised.

Day 1 consists of meeting at the convention center at 5pm. Not in the lounge of the hotel, where there are comfy places to sit and wait, no. Meet in the main convention welcome hall, where there is nothing at all to sit on. It's a vast, marble, empty space here. There is a snack bar, which appears to be open, in spite of the display cases being devoid of edibles. Three people man the register, and when I take one chair and lean my baggage against another, they are quite happy to sell me a bottle of water. So I sit and sip, and read the increasingly irritating travelogue book I brought for waiting. The book is just a hair from being annoying enough to ditch half-read, but I didn't bring anything else. It's so lonely here that after several minutes the server brings me a cookie, on the house. How sweet!

At 4:50 I start wandering around, wondering if my guide will be early, wondering if there's anybody else going on this tour, since the only other people around are arriving for events at the convention center. Ah, here's my guide, a tiny Chinese girl of 20 or so who speaks passable english. I can understand what she says, but her vocabulary is so limited she can't say much. At any rate, I won't be touring anything with her but the route to the airport. We're waiting on a second traveler, a colleague from the breast cancer meeting. Waiting. Waiting. Aha, he's waiting for us over at the hotel lobby!

Off to the airport for a 9pm flight. We'll be at our hotel in Zhangjiajie by 11. So the largest single block of time we have today is spent hanging around the airport. Gee, cool. I do notice an "Italian" coffee bar near our gate, and the coffee there is not bad.Better than the usual Chinese stuff. An Italian coffee bar that serves noodles and the usual Chinese snack fare. Strange.
Another thing about BIT's tours. They never tell you anything. Our guide takes us to the ticket counter, cutting ahead of the crowd though nobody seems to mind, gets us our boarding cards, and says See you when you get back. We don't know how long the flight is. We don't know the name of the hotel. We assume we'll be met at the Zhangjiajie airport, but this is not mentioned explicitly. We don't know the airline, flight number, or time of our flight back. We don't know the name of the hotel we'll be staying at on our return. Just go. Just remember: if you say Yes to anything, consider it bought.

We are met by Sam, a skinny 30-something guy in jeans and a tattered jacket. His english is excellent even though he's never been to an anglophone country. His image isn't quite up to that of our shiny new minivan and suited driver, but he's a great guide.

Three memorable things about the 40 minute drive though the dark countryside (isn't there a city of a million people just around here?): The driver drives the Chinese way: in the middle of the road until something makes you get over. There's a China Giant Salamander Museum lit up in neon (but it's not on our itinerary). We overtook an emergency vehicle with its lights & sirens on. Normally, you see such a vehicle and you let it go on its way. But this one, which was going our direction, was travelling more slowly than our driver was happy with, so we just passed it.

The new hotel is even more luxurious than the convention center one. Which is probably just a very nice hotel, but my standards aren't very high. This one is newer, the carpets thicker, the sitting area more comfortable. The breakfast buffet is even larger.

It's just me and Louis for the tour, and Louis has to go back a day early. He got caught in a trap: a flight back to Paris on the 22nd at 0:20. A few minutes after midnight. This does not count as the 22nd! We get back to Guangzhou the 21st at 11:50 pm. Half an hour to catch his flight. Can't be done. So I'll be on my own for the "third" day of the tour.

Sam's not meeting us until 10, so after breakfast I go out for a stroll around the town. I'm confused as to whether this small town of 50,000 or so is Zhangjiajie of if that's the city nearby or the name of the whole region. It looks a lot like a ski-resort town, with a dozen huge modern hotels charging western prices surrounded by small buildings and shops comprising the rest of the town. The locals and the visitors definitely do not mix. In my walk around, I see nothing of interest to an outsider. There's not even a souvenir shop. Tourists must stay sealed in their hotel, going out only to board their buses and be whisked to the sights.

The local people are out having breakfast in the numerous small shops along the main streets. Typically there's some kind of grill with a frying pan, and a place for steaming dumplings. The Chinese seem to eat for breakfast pretty much what they eat for lunch or dinner. Elsewhere I've been, the menu for the morning meal is quite different than that for later ones. Not here.

Walking around, the town reminds me of North Africa. The sidewalks are broad, because so much business is done there, and it's dirty, the tiles cracked or missing, weeds growing, trash strewn about, dogs hanging around. Aside from the hotels, the town is very poor. The apartment blocks aren't even painted.

The sky is somewhat bluer than it was in Guangzhou, but the haze is still thick enough to obscure the jagged mountain peaks in the distance. And not a far distance; just a few kilometers. It's pretty thick in the morning, but the sun might burn some of it off by afternoon. So it's just as well that our first stop is the Yellow Dragon Cave.

This is the largest cave known in China, and one of the largest in the world. Discovered less than 20 years ago, the Chinese quickly developed a roaring tourist trade here, with miles of concrete walks and iron handrails and thousands of lights inside. Louis and I thank goodness for Chinese discipline, because such a fragile site as a cave, with all it's wonderful limestone formations, would quickly be trampled but for their willingness to stay on the path.

A different kind of degradation is well on its way in the cave, however. With thousands of visitors a day and lights on, everywhere & all the time, it's becoming quite green inside. Not just algae in the ponds and on the damp stalactite and stalagmite surfaces, but leafy plants around the light fixtures.

Cave pictures never really come out without a tripod, but here are some anyway.

A boat ride from one cave part to another is part of the fun. That's my companion Louis in the front row.
After the cave it's time for lunch. Sam takes us to a local restaurant, not to one of the hotels thank goodness, and we have some very spicy food. Delicious! Hot peppers seem to be just another vegetable here, there are so many in there. Yes, we are in Hunan province! It's a welcome change from the mild Cantonese fare in Guangzhou.

From the restaurant balcony.
And that's all I've typed so far.