Our hotel was right by the Li River, in the heart of their shopping district. It had rained the day before, so profusely that the temperatures had dropped to something in the high 70's and low 80's when, usually, by the end of May, their temperatures are in the 90's. Sadly, the change in location didn't help my asthma, which really started to act up. Luckily, though, the overcast stayed around and made the river cruise quite comfortable.
The omnipresence of the mountains was amazing, even through the most normal of parking lots or roads. I remember John's cousin Anne, staring at the Rockies outside our front door asking us, "You get used to this?"
Part of my wonder was that I'd been seeing these kinds of mountains in all kinds of traditional Chinese paintings for most of my life; however, I'd never seen these kinds of mountains in person.
One funny thing in the bus was Lily calling out, "Du dao la?" Which, in Chinese means, "Is everyone here?" But can be transliterated into "Two dolla'." "Wen dao la?" also means "are there people who going to be late getting here?" and can be transliterated into "One dolla'." I liked the clever cross-language pun, and the whole group used the two dollar phrasing for the rest of the trip. I really liked how quickly everyone in the group picked things up.
Nearly all the boats were like this one, where the passengers were up front or on top on an observation deck, and the kitchen was underneath and out in the open, to keep the fumes from the cooking outside. The red basin was used for the initial scrub of all the dishes, and they all used water right out of the river for the initial scrub and then a sanitizer inside the kitchen to make the dishes safe. There were more than a hundred of these little boats all moored to the same docks and waiting for people to get on them.
The Painted Veil was filmed one these exact waters, between these mountains.
The guides said that these flat bamboo boats were pretty dangerous, and a few more enterprising young men had decided to use PVC piping instead of bamboo. I'm not at all sure that it's any safer with the PVC. One of the interesting things for me was just watching the banks and seeing marks of people living right off the shore for nearly the whole length of the river. There are a lot of rivers I've rafted where there's a house or two by the water, but not a lot more. Usually it's just deserted shoreline, or just land let go wild. Here, there were always people and the signs of people. Everything from a small foot bridge built over a stream going into the water, to ropes on the side for boats, to small piers, steps, or even markets on the shore.
Much of the landscape was like this, the limestone formations, often cut clean by the water of the river, and each of them covered in greenery of all kinds. There were dozens of small waterfalls, splashing into the river. Trees, bamboo, and brush of all kinds covered every nook and cranny that might hold dirt and water. It was all completely green.
That's in high contrast to the Rockies, where there aren't trees or much of anything growing on the slopes. Underbrush is unheard of, and the bare rock is more often seen than this kind of thing.
The one thing we saw the most of was other tour boats, as far as the eye could see. We started our ride by jockeying around and with another half a dozen ships, until we finally broke free of the pack and got far enough ahead to only have a few of them in front of us and one or two behind.
The cabin was stuffy, hot, and warm. The one throne toilet overflowed, and I realized, in a visceral sense, why Jevons said that the Chinese really preferred the squat toilets for public toilets because there was absolutely no contact with any surfaces. After that I was really really glad for any of the squat toilets we found, especially if they flushed. The ones on the boat were by a sink that had a cook pot used to catch water from the faucet in order to "flush" the toilet.
I was never so glad of my alcohol hand sanitizer, and after that, I just stayed up on the observation deck for pretty much the rest of the ride.
Today, most of the cormorant fishing is done for tourists, it used to be that half a dozen birds could not just feed a family but make enough money to cloth and house them as well. Lily and Jevons said that there was a special outing for the evening that involved a ride around the city on a waterway and then watching cormorant fishermen do their thing. We decided to opt out and see our part of the city by walking instead.
Lily told a story about an old fisherman who so loved his birds that when they got too old to fish, his son was persuaded to sell them without telling him. When he found out, he got so depressed he got terribly sick, until his son relented and went and bought the birds back for just as much as he sold them. The old fisherman revived and was happy for a while again, until the birds got so old, they got sick. So he fed them wine and beef to kill them peacefully, and then buried them.
The landscape only became more beautiful and more like the traditional paintings I'd always seen. I'd wondered if the mountains were really like that, and here they were, exactly like that, and I could easily imagine far more mist on rainy days.
There was one whole tour group from the Bay Area, with a very exuberant East Indian man with an iPad, asking me to take pictures of his whole group. He was amused to find that I was from Colorado, just as I liked knowing that he was actually from the Bay Area, along with a bunch of his group. There were two young men from the East Coast, too, who rhapsodized about the kinds of tobacco they could find in Chinese smoke shops, the likes of which can't be found in the US anymore.
That was pretty fun.
Lily came up soon thereafter to point out a few of the more special formations. She'd told us about a formation, the day before that was supposed to be of a woman and her baby, and the tale had it that her husband had left to find work to make money to keep them. But that he'd gone across the river to do so. When he tried to come back, the river was in flood and washed him away to drown, and the woman and her baby had turned to stone waiting for him.
It was fun standing there with everyone else just trying to see how many horses we could see. I loved Jeff not wanting to see that many, because he had no desire to be in charge of a country. I had to side with him.
Lily, as our guide, said that it was very Chinese to have to assign stories to all the formations, to make them interesting. She rather liked that us Americans really just wanted to enjoy the beauty of nature for its own sake. So she didn't try to catch our attention for too many of the named formations.
I loved that Linda got out her twenty yuan note to make the comparison and John caught the moment of seeing it line up.
Lunch was served soon after that, and the upper deck emptied. I wasn't very hungry, and had had an enormous breakfast, so was pretty well set. It was nice up there without nearly anyone else. I stayed until people started filtering up again, and figuring that lunch was mostly over, I went down where everyone was finishing up. I asked for some plain white rice, and got a bowlful of it because Jet had asked for the same thing! They'd made a fried rice for lunch, but because Jet asked for plain white rice, I was able to get some of it for myself.
The coolest thing was that they were also selling a snake wine in the lunch room. It was a huge, glass jar filled with liquor in which soaked several dead snakes. One of the East Coast men had gotten a shot of it and banged it down like it was nothing, and got a very wide-eyed look from the waitress.
But as we went further, the mountains grew less jagged, less like individual lobes of stone set on the shore. They rounded out, grew more gradual, and had more slope, and with the slope they also gained more earth, trees, grass, and arable ground for crops.
The tiny plots seem typical of the whole country. Even just outside Beijing, all the plots were small, and obviously hand tended, as are these. Jevons said that the farmers were a designation within China, that they are given an allotment of land, and they're expected to get everything they need from the land itself. This means that if their crops fail, or if they leave their land, they're out of luck. They get no assistance at all from the government. They're expected to not only pay for their food and living expenses, but also for any and all of their medical costs from the money they make from selling their extra crops. And the hospitals in China, if you can't pay or don't have insurance have absolutely no obligation to take care of you, unlike in the US.
A farmer's children and grandchildren have the same designation, and cannot change it without a college education. If they want to become city dwellers, they have to have a job already lined up and someone to vouch for them in order to change their status. That's why the Xi'an farmer asked for an education for his grandchildren.
I'll admit that this wasn't the communism I was led to expect. It's communism in the terms of all the land is owned by the government, but it's certainly not socialism because there's a lot of people without any safety net whatsoever, and the government isn't going to bail the out.
So a farmer's resources are conserved to the utmost. They save and save and save for those emergencies, so these water buffalo, while they're an investment for the farmers, aren't as costly to upkeep as farming machinery might be. So they get a good swim in after a hard day's work, and then go at it again. They also give milk and more calves, and can be eaten when they die. So it's a tighter loop and much shallower pockets.
The docks were situated at the far end of the little town and the buses had to park out at an open spot on a different side, so when we actually disembarked from our boat, it was a long, long walk to where the buses were parked.
Jevons and Lily organized shuttles for us all that were aggrandized golf carts with cars. We had to walk through a long alley of vendors to even get to the bright pink carts.
There's a lot of things that I take for granted in the US that have to do with personal safety. There aren't helmets here, aren't required safety belts, the campaign against smoking has little to do with personal health issues here. It seems to have far more to do with how China presented itself during the Olympics. That smoking isn't allowed in public venues for most of the rest of the world, so it wasn't going to be allowed here.
I'll admit, though, that it was a great relief being in the open air, with the wind blowing hard past us. The coolness was a blessing, and being about to see everything and everyone was really fun.
The shuttle took us through down, out into the woods, and past a lotus pond, completely filled with lotus pads. They raise lotus with ducks in the ponds, and harvest roots, seeds, and flowers. The huge tourist parking lot lay on the edge of town. Twenty buses were all parked in neat rows. There was a public restroom there, that everyone went to after seeing the boat's restrooms. I was immensely grateful that they were squat toilets, and then we all got on the bus to head back toward town.
We drove through farmlands. We saw one field where hundreds of tiny shelters had all been built by hand for the plants beneath. On the side of the road, at one point, we saw a man walking with a cow and her calf. It seemed all very rural until I realized that the road we were on opened up to eight lanes, coming and going. It's still a city of 700,000 people, which is about the same size as Denver!
I went back to the room early, in order to take advantage of the shower. While I was under the spray thunder rocked the whole building. Jet and John were out in the water until a downpour ensued, and when the lightning and thunder cracked really nearby, they got out. Then they had to run through a deluge to get between the gym and the main hotel building. While my hair dried, John, Jet, and my Dad went out for a walk, so I just sat in the windowsill of Jet and Dad's room and sketched the camphor trees the lined the streets by the river. They're black barked trees with graceful limbs, and long leaves that fluttered in the wind. The soothing sound of the rain and the rush of traffic was wonderful to just sit and contemplate.
Dinner was from the hotel's buffet. I went pretty light on my meal, given the condition of my stomach, but there was one dish that I couldn't pass up. It was sliced pork belly slow-braised with preserved mustard greens in soy, ginger, scallions, and the usual Chinese crew of seasonings. It melted in the mouth, and had exactly the flavors I remembered from my childhood and the potlucks all the Moms threw in Indiana. Every week they'd try to outdo each other on the complexity and rareness of the dishes, and the kids would only be allowed to descent like locusts after the parents were done, but... wow. I remember eight treasure rice, roasted ducks, these slow-braised red-cooked meats, and all kinds of things like that pork belly. Funny what memories rise with taste and scent.
After dinner, John and Dad got a map of Guilin and we decided to take a walk to look around the open air market just a block away from the hotel.
As we were walking away after our little treat the guy started yelling at us. Unlike vendors in the US, who give our free samples to get people to buy, these guys 'give' the samples away, expecting people to pay for them. We gave him a couple of yuan, and felt kind of lousy for it. So there wasn't any way I was going to buy anything from him. Still, there were a lot of people with cart loads of mangosteens all over the city! So it would have been easy to get them elsewhere. There were just too many other fascinating things to see.
Sure enough, with a little looking, I came across bags and tins of Osmanthus blossoms. The guy in charge of the store happily told Dad that I had to get the tins, because once the bags were open they'd go bad quickly, and we got him down from 60 yuan per tin to two tins for 50 yuan. That made me blink a lot, and wonder just how much of a mark up there was on everything else. The bags were just ten yuan a piece, and seemed to really be filled with the same stuff, but they had both the yellow osmanthus (which I'd seen before and loved) and something that looked like a red osmanthus blossom, which might have just been a much darker gold and had dried nearly red.
I wasn't sure enough to get them then. I knew that the last time I'd visited the place in Santa Cruz where I'd gotten just pure Osmanthus blossoms they hadn't had any more, so I wanted to buy some of them, but I also knew that I didn't go through them that quickly. So the two tins were just about perfect. And they smelled wonderful in their tins.
It was raining gently, like a Seattle mist, and all kinds of people were out. The scooters packed the parking areas, and many of them had plastic on them, but people were out and about and ignoring the rain. Lily said that this was just the beginning of the monsoon season, so they just expected the rain.
We walked through the whole mall, and John decided we should go see the silver and gold towers on the lake in the middle of town, so we turned away into the dark away from the mall, and walked the few blocks to the lake.
I turned, staring after him, and Jet said, "Wow."
On the bus, the very first night we got into Guilin, Lily had listed the four ethnic minorities that were more prevalent in Guilin, and I'd written down the following:
And that Guilin, itself was in the Drum Autonomous region, but there is no "Drum" ethnic minority, it's actually the 'Zhuang', and Guilin is in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, which shares a southern border with Vietnam. One of the characteristics of the Zhuang is a courting ritual that involves singing, on both sides, so it's an ethnic art that's deeply cultivated in the region.
And we'd just heard an entirely spontaneous expression of it. Lily is one of the Zhuang herself. And, like Hawk, is able to have a family with two births instead of just one. And Jevons later explained that it is an attempt, at the national level, to preserve the ethnic heritage of those that are under-represented in the country.
It wasn't that much further to the lake, and the lit towers were beautiful, especially with the city behind it all covered in its own neon, and the tree filled and quiet park before it. The rain was still falling gently, and it felt more and more like Seattle than anything else. I loved it.
A few years ago, my Dad thought it might be all right for me to change my personal name to the one that actually means Jade instead of the homonym for jade that I used to have that meant something like tranquility or peaceful. All of my old chops have the old characters for my name on them, and I wanted a new chop with my name on it.
Dad managed to bargain it down to forty yuan, which, for a hand-carved chop seemed amazingly low, but they seemed all right with that price. Dad asked the carver to make it as spontaneous as he could, and so the guy sketched the characters for my name on the stone and got down to carving.
Dad decided to insist on a little more depth to some of the lines, and the guy obliged. It was fun to see him make the adjustments, and we ended up with a chop that felt as rough as the stone it was on. I loved that, as I intend to paint some paintings that aren't quite as meticulous as the Longs Peak painting I did in the spring. I need something more spontaneous and the chop felt like it matched. Dad was a little disappointed in it, and promised me that in Shanghai he'd get me another one that was more to his liking.
I'll admit that interaction in a country where I feel incredibly clumsy speaking is really difficult, and drains a lot out of me. It's kind of odd realizing how limited I feel while I'm here. The interesting thing is that the longer I stayed, the more I began to understand of the conversations, they weren't beyond me, and came closer into reach the more I heard. That surprised me to some degree.
Another cool thing was that in the times when Dad and Jet were waiting for John and I, for dinner, for breakfast, before going somewhere, they had put together a series of writing lessons for Jet, where Dad would write out the word, give Jet the meaning, and a pronunciation, so Jet was learning words quite quickly simply by being Dad's roommate. So the whole arrangement of having Dad with Jet was working out really well.
Next Entry >