|Up to Speed # 12 China, China, China
||[Jul. 14th, 2007|06:18 pm]
We’ve been back in the states now for almost one month. Re-entry, as some call it, has been mind numbing. Depending when, where, and how you ask us, and depending which one of us you ask, will drive our response at that exact moment. For me, it is a cyclical feeling, never constant, and almost always in motion. I have adopted the response to the question “How does it feel to be back” by tucking my upper lip behind my lower lip, getting a deeply confused look on my face, and muttering some unintelligible pondering sounds that, I think, generally conveys the idea that I really don’t know how I feel. One major failure I have had in the first month since re-entry is giving myself adequate alone time to gather my thoughts and reflect on what just happened during the last year abroad. More to come on our emotional state…
Our volunteer work with the Border Green Energy Team (www.bget.org), locally that is, came to an end May 1. Between May 1 and June 20, we traveled through Southwest China and Burma (Myanmar). Saying goodbye to our family, friends and colleagues in Mae Sot (rural Thailand along the Burma Border) wasn’t fun. There are 4 categories of people we said goodbye to. 1, 2, 3 are International Volunteer Colleagues, Thai friends and Karen friends and colleagues who have jobs with NGOs in Mae Sot, respectively. Saying goodbye was fine. They all have good lives and we will see them again. Category 4 is where things get difficult. Cat. 4 are the refugees living in the camps, comprised of two groups (this classification is only for our “saying goodbye” purposes). The first in Cat. 4 are those who have applied for resettlement to a third country (mostly the US in this case) and are likely to or have already gotten their resettlement approval or those who have large families and communities and are firmly established in these camps. (Remember, these “temporary” camps have been around for over 20 years and for many have become far more “permanent” than temporary). This group is relatively safe, reachable, and presumably we will see again. The second part of Cat. 4 is where things get painful. These are all the refugees who have little to no family in the camps or at all or those who are recent arrivals or recent registrants who are very far down the very long list of refugees applying to resettle to third countries. Their day to day is uncertain. Some have to return to Burma occasionally to help family (the return trip is very dangerous), the security in the camp is uncertain because of the threat of Burmese troops and Karen Buddhist troops. Will we ever see these people again? They still are living day-to-day survival. As we said goodbye through the barbed wires that separated the free and the stateless, emotions were heightened. ***Note*** Your donations bought our Intern, E Maw Lay, a beautiful guitar, the nicest one we could find in Mae Sot. Every Sunday, E Maw Lay spends at the Church, singing and playing guitar. He is brilliant at both, but the guitar he was using was of such low quality. Not anymore! Great work everyone. Also, your donations bought Saw Tha Wa private English lessons for one year. He was one of our best engineering students and the most courageous with his English. He will take classes 3 days a week for two hours from 6:30 – 8:30 am with a private teacher in the camp, whom we met and speaks perfect English. Somehow, she was educated at Ithace College in upstate New York. Go Tha Wa!!!
I have waited to tell this story until after we returned from our traveling through Burma. Before we left for our 6 weeks of traveling, we had to get visas to travel through china and Burma. We arrived at the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok about 10:00 am. To our dismay, the day before was the Burmese national holiday “Armed Forces Day,” which, as one would expect, is deemed by the military junta, a very significant holiday. Burmese embassies around the world are closed on this day, making the embassy in Bangkok particularly crowded the day we arrived. There are two lines at the embassy, the “orange” line and the “blue” line; the former is for “individuals,” the latter for travel agents representing multiple individuals. One window serves both lines. Pecking order is one “orange” then one “blue” and so on. Each travel agent in the “blue” line can have upwards of 25 passports. If someone in the “orange” line is proud of their profession as an attorney, writer, photographer, human writes activist, etc. and answers honestly in the “occupation” line on the visa form, they are up shits creek, meaning, after extensive probing by embassy officials, they are documented and denied a visa…. Darn troublemakers ;-) You see that the line, when moving, moves at a snail’s pace. Between the two lines, we were probably # 15 in line. The waiting area of this embassy screams Ken Kesey’s loony ward, depressing linoleum only brightened by the far more depressing artificial light and absence of natural light or color. Noon (lunchtime) rolls around and a lady comes our from behind the plexi glass to inform us the embassy would be closed until 1pm and everyone needed to vacate the room, everyone’s pleasure. She kindly informed us lunchtime wasn’t designed to build a strategy to swindle your way further up the waiting line; we were to return to our identical places in line. Those who arrived during lunch would proceed to the end of the queue. At 10 minutes to 1:00 pm, a horde of people start lining up at the front door. Most I don’t recognize from before lunch. The inward opening doors were not even half open when this pack (like of group of wolves or hyenas) burst open to the door and run straight for the “Visa” window. When the dust settles, there are about 8 people at the front of the line who either had been at the back of the queue when lunch started or who had arrived at lunch. So our # 15 spot, which probably started at # 17, was now # 23. What to do? Unfortunately for me, I don’t have any say in the matter. Before I had time to make a plan, I was at the front of the line. A young woman (early 20s) and her mother (50s) had first position. “Excuse ladies, we were informed before lunch that our places in line would remain the same after lunch.” Young girl: “How do we know that’s what they said, we weren’t here.” Arie: “That’s exactly my point, we all were here. It’s only fair that the line operates first come first serve from the beginning of the day.” Young girl: “Well, why don’t you show us where that is written.” Arie: “This is the unwritten rule of human decency.” Young girl: “We’re here now and we don’t have all day to sit the in the line so we are not moving.” Arie: “I think you are selecting an option that is not available.” Young girl: “Why don’t you get the f*ck out of here, I don’t give a f*ck what the rule is, I am here and not moving.” Here’s where the excitement starts. I look down and sure enough their passports are sitting on the counter. As quickly as my heart explodes through my chest, I grab their passports. Profanities fly my way and as I start to walk away, the 95-pound mother proceeds to grab my arm bag and try and climb me to get her passports back. She can’t make it up the 8 feet to the top of my raised hands where the passports are safe from them. We now have everyone’s attention. In a Buddhist country, people go great lengths to avoid having anyone’s attention. Young girl “Passport thief, someone stop this passport thief.” Mother “Someone call the police.” Arie: “Yes, please call the police, I will gladly, in Thai, tell them I would like fried rice and a mango shake, about the only two things I can say beautifully in Thai. Within 2 minutes, the police arrive. Careful to not create a scene, they keep their distance from me, the American. Fortunately, because Angie’s and my family were visiting us within the next few days, we had undergone intensive Thai language classes the previous 6 weeks. It would be too shameful for our Thai, after 8 months, to not be decent enough to properly guide our family around the country. I explain to the Thai police the situation. Immediately, 2 Thai people pick up where I left on and properly explain what happened. The police escort the two ladies from the embassy. Their fate we don’t know. I’ll operate under the assumption they were taken around back and had their visas issued on the spot and told to enjoy their trip to Burma. But, because we never know, it is more comforting to assume they were thrown out of the country and thrown into some land of egocentric derelicts. The young girl gracefully exited with her conclusions about my sexuality. Things return to normal at the embassy. 4:00 pm arrives before we know it. The two Israeli girls behind us get in a conversation with a Burmese man. Passports and money exchange hands and the girls get up to leave. “Excuse me,” Angie says to the girls, “what just happened there”? Girls: “This guys just sold us “express” service on our visa processing.” Angie: “Oh, really”? Angie and I huddle up. If we don’t get our visas in that day, we won’t get them back before our parents arrive and we will be traveling around the country without passports. Not an option. Angie to the guy with “express” offerings: “Sir, can we have “express” services”? Guy: “What country are you from”? Angie: “USA” Guy: “Hold on.” He makes a call on his mobile phone. A man behind the plexiglass in the embassy answers the call. Conversation ensues between the two of them Guy “Yes, this is the price for 3 day service.” Angie: “But sir, we need our visas in two days. You just gave those girls 2 day service for $xxxx.” Guy: “That service at that price is no longer available. Goodbye”! As the guy is walking off, I chime in: “50% more than those two girls just paid you.” This gets his attention. The guy calls behind the plexiglass. “Done.” He says. We hand over our passports, application, and cash and are told to come back in two days. He will be waiting for us.
WELCOME TO BURMA!!!
We flew from Bangkok to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in Southwest China. Population ~ 5 Million, Chengdu is the biggest city you have never heard of. But with over 1.3 billion people, this is not uncommon in China. We were to spend the next 3 + weeks in Sichuan and the province just south of Sichuan, Yunnan. This is God’s country, or better yet, Buddha’s country. Our intention was to spend most of our time in China trekking, climbing mountains and just generally doing our exploring on foot, outside. First we set off to Emei Shan or Mt. Emei, one of China’s 4 Holy Buddhist Mountains. From the bottom to the top of Mt. Emei is almost 8,000 vertical feet. Emei Shan means “Eyebrow Mountain” named for its two peaks at the summit that are supposed to resemble classic chines eyebrows looking at each other. The walk from the bottom to the top was rainy and cold, but pricelessly beautiful. We made the trip in two days up and one down, each night sleeping at a different Buddhist Monastery. Emei boasts China’s first Buddhist temple, 2,000 years old. Covering 8,000 vertical feet, there are different sub-climates and vegetation. Memorable views are abundant deep green trees starkly contrasted by a classic red-roofed monastery. One of the 4 “sacred” things to do on the mountain is to watch the sunrise from the summit. We woke at 3:30 am to get to the top for sunrise. What greeted us at the summit was not the sunrise, but thousands of Chinese tourists. The first week we were in China was “Golden Week,” a weeklong Chinese national holiday that produces an estimated 255 million domestic tourists. We think half of them came to Mt. Emei, armed with their mobile phones to photograph the Emei sunrise. 99% of them take the bus up the side to the summit, although we did see some, in the patented Chinese blazer and dress shoes climbing the full 8,000 feet.
From there we headed to the town of Kangding. Sichuan province’s western border is Tibet and Kangding has a strong Tibetan influence. Physically, the Tibetans resemble more closely central and south Americans and Native Americans than they do the Chinese. Kangding would be our meeting point and our base for launching our 5-day trek around the 7,556 Meter (just shy of 25,000 feet) Mt. Minya Konka (Gonga Shan). Accompanying us would be our Tibetan horseman, 3 horses, mules, donkeys; our chines (English speaking guide Kevin) and our gourmet cook Mr. Yen. This trip would stay above 13,000 feet and peak out at between 15 – 16,000 feet. Everything was perfect except for one thing. Mr. Yen was a chimney chain smoker and probable close to 60 years old. He had never before been in the mountains. It turns out our travel agent, who is an entire additional blog of a dishonest crook, couldn’t find a young cook with mountain experience. They were all already booked. So, in last minute desperation, our travel agent went to his family restaurant and told Mr. Yen, a restaurant line cook in the capital city of Chengdu, that he needed to get on a 12 hours bus ride to meet us and be our high altitude gourmet, mountain chef. To Mr. Yen’s chagrin, we collectively decided no one wanted to see Mr. Yen suffer through 5 days of long hiking, altitude sickness, and rough weather. Mr. Yen chose life and returned to Chengdu without ever stepping foot into the mountains. The kicker is he had already gone shopping for all the food, ingredients which he planned to use for our gourmet meals. Nobody else on our team knew how to cook. The result: 5 days of boiled slop that typically was some concoction of overcooked noodles, hot dog, cabbage, and spicy Sichuan sauce (our saving grace). There was an unspoken understanding that our meals were better left for the horses and we should stick with our bread and butter…. Chocolate Oreos, banana chips, and Chinese wheat crackers. My favorite part was watching the horses take a double take before eating our leftovers.
The trek was beautiful. I kept commenting how “big,” “expansive” and “remote” the landscape was. We walked mostly on what I would describe as Chinese tundra, not quite as spongy and deep green as Alaskan tundra, but more like a grassy tundra, riddle with yaks and their plentiful excrement deposits. Backgrounds and foregrounds, were large snowcapped peaks, epic looking backcountry skiing as far as the eye could see. We camped some nights; stayed with a Tibetan family in a traditional Tibetan village one night and stayed one night at a sacred monastery directly below the towering glacier covered Mt. Gonga. Traditional Tibetan diet is dried yak meat, yak butter tea (thick yak milk mixed with lots of butter) boiled over an open fire fueled by dried yak dung, and let’s call it “dough” which is aforementioned yak butter tea mixed with flower. For those interested there is a lifetime of appropriate technology work that could be done with the Tibetans. When we returned to Kangding, we had put in about 100 miles and thousands of feet of elevation gain over 5 days. Remember though, we had horses carrying all our gear. I strongly recommend the pack animal route, particularly in landscapes where pack animals cause minimal impact. Also, if you are trying to get someone who is not very “outdoorsy” outdoors, the pack animals can carry some luxuries that typically are too heavy or bulky to bring on a normal, carry-it-yourself trip. Plus, whether or not you are willing to admit it, having no weight on your back eliminates those “irritable” moments that tend to coincide with any incline.
Our tour guide and trek were great. Our travel agent was a crook. Without going into all the details, he charged us several hundred dollars for services and items we didn’t receive. Thankfully, we only paid 75% prior to the trek. After explaining to him we wouldn’t pay for a cook we didn’t have or a second horseman we didn’t have or a promised “Landrover” that turned out to be a 91’ Volkswagen, he became outraged. He concluded that because the trip had been completed, all agreed upon prices would be paid. His calm, grandfather tenderness turned into a raging, screaming nut in all of 30 seconds. Before we new it, he promised he would send someone to our hostel to collect the money. We went into 24 hour hiding and escaped Kangding scared, but unharmed.
In this area of China, there are entire towns that don’t speak a word of English and we don’t speak Chinese. After our experience with this travel agent, we lost that benefit of the trustworthiness, which sucks to lose. While traveling to our next trek, the Yangtze River as it rages through Tiger Leaping Gorge, we made complete fools of ourselves. We arranged for transportation from Point A to Point B in a minivan. The minivan had to go to Point B so we got a great price. 20 minutes into the journey, Angie woke me up and said we were directionally going the wrong way. What were these little swindlers thinking? Angie and I are seasoned travelers. This is the oldest trick in the book; the old “Here we are in Point C after 5 hours of driving.” “Oh, well we said we wanted to go to Point B and you said you would take us to Point B.” “What, you never said Point B. Give me money now”! We made a complete scene and demanded they pull over and show us the route on our map. Sure enough, we were going to Pt. B, but via Point C, 2 + hours out of the way and never mentioned. In the middle of nowhere, we abandoned our van and told them we didn’t care where we were or where they were going, we were getting to our destination “honestly.” 30 seconds after the van drove off, it started raining. Were we being punished? After all, before the drive they took us to the town monastery to pray for a safe journey, make an offering, and earn some merit. We had 2 hours to get back to town before the last bus was to leave for Point B. An hour into our walk, we were wet and at Kilometer Marker 20 (mile 12) from the town. There was no way we would make the last bus, yet alone arrive before dark. During that first hour not one car passed us heading towards town. The occasionally rural farmer passed us the opposite way in some obscure makeshift tractor. We came across a coal mine. Things got eerie quickly. Now, I know the US contributes 25% of all greenhouse gases and China, although awful and home to 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, contributes less, a rural coalmine in China is as bad as it sounds, from an environmental perspective. There is a hole is the side of the mountain and below the large mountain all the liquid runoff from the coal mine and mining activities is stored in a man made pool, charcoal gray. Safe enough right? Well, it rains so much out there that the pool just spills over into the river running through this valley and they river becomes the new exit for this toxic mix of pollutants. All the way down the river, just to start, people drink the river water; eat the animals that drink the river water, etc.
Nevertheless, this coal mine was our first sign of civilization and our only hope of making the last bus out of town. One of us had to go inside the back office building of this coal mine. In our usual responsibility assigning process, we played “Rock, Scissors, Paper.” This is actually very effective if the participants respect the outcome. I had literally won 14 of the last 15 and had Angie figured out. I lost. I walked into the floor, single room, about 50 X 75 feet, wet and not Chinese. Within 3 seconds 25 male Chinese, stern, stoic eyes were upon me. “Knee How (phonetically Chinese for hello),” not a word in response. I glance around. Seriously sophisticated electronics and communications equipment lay everywhere. Two guys are randomly sitting in the middle of the floor making beautiful Chinese characters on large sheets of white paper. Absolute silence….. staring continues, finally, thank you lord, a man from behind a table says “you want what.” Arie: “I go Point A” Man: “No.” Okay, there wasn’t much left to the imagination. I might be going to town A, but completely independent of him or his guys. I pull out 100 Yuan (~ $15). Arie “I go Point A.” Chinese conversation erupts. Chinese man who initially declined my request made eye contact with another guy, nodded and sure enough the other guy, got up, walked outside and drove us in his brand new “Volkswagen SUV” to Point A. We got to Point A just in time to be told there was no bus leaving that day or the next. We slept at Point A. The next morning we learned all vehicles going from point A to point B had to go through point C during this time of the year because the direct road is closed due to rockslides. So 24 hours from when we had embarrassingly jumped out of the minivan and two times the original price later, we found ourselves driving the identical route through point C.
The trip through Tiger Leaping Gorge (TLG) was memorable. TLG is about a 20-mile stretch of the upper Yangtze (called the “Jinsha” by the Chinese in this stretch of the river) that carves and flows through a gorge with vertical walls and snowcapped peaks 3,000 meters (10,000 feet) above the river. The main attraction is a mammoth stone in the middle of the river, where legend has it, a tiger used to use to cross the river. There is a small walking path several hundred, if not a thousand, feet above the river and the heavily used driving road that ferries in Chinese tourists. This small footpath called the “High Trail” offers great views and an occasional guesthouse, where one can rest, eat, and sleep slope side with 15,000-foot peaks on either side and the distant views of the river below, typically $3 - $4 per person.
Prior to our “entrance” into the TLG, it had rained for 5 straight days. We were warned of rockslides and general danger during these rains. Forecasts called for 5 more days of rain. Backpackers we met were headed other places intended to return to TLG when the sun returned. We didn’t have the time luxury to do this so we decided, the heck with it, weathermen are only right 50% of the time, let’s give it a whirl and we can always come back it if is too muddy or hairy. 5 sunny later, we had hiked through the gorge and arrived at the Naxi village of “Haba.”
According to our San Francisco native Amy Tan “In China there is a saying made popular after the revolution: Women hold up half the sky. In the Naxi Autonomous Region, women have always held up the whole sky. It is a matriarchal society, where the females do the work, handle the money, and raise the children. The men, meanwhile, ride on the backs of shooting stars, so to speak. They are bachelors, boyfriends, and uncles, roaming from bed to bed at night, not knowing which children they have fathered. They take the animals out to graze early in the morning, they bring them back at dusk. In the mountains, they roll their cigarettes and smoke, and when they call the animals, they lure them with love songs. The men do poetry. To hear a song sung in the mountains is always poetry.”
We asked the lady running the small guest house if we could climb Haba Mountain, elevation 5396 Meters (17,700 feet). Looking at 6’3” me and 5’3” Angie, she calmly replied “you very strong” to me and “you, wait at base camp” to Angie. I chuckled and immediately had flashbacks of our trip to Mt. Shasta when Angie punishingly drug Jaron, Max, and me to the top of Shasta. To demonstrate Angie’s capabilities, I imitated a jogging motion pointed to Angie and said “she 42 kilometers, like run.” The young Naxi lady had conviction and stereotypes were not to be destroyed with my words. “Fine, I said.” “Make sure you get us a strong guide so Angie doesn’t have to spend her whole trip waiting for us.” Puzzled is the best way to describe her look.
Haba Snow Mountain has the southern most glacier in China. Also, it is probably the least technical almost 18,000 foot mountain, which allows people like Angie and me to climb it. The hike to base camp was pretty straightforward. The local minorities include Naxi, Hui (Muslim) and Yi peoples, as well as the occasional Muslim. A beautiful turquoise moraine lake and small man-made stone hut greeted us at base camp. There we met our non-english speaking guides, brothers of the lady who ran the guest house. After sizing Angie up, they broke into Naxi language clearly gameplanning what they would do when Angie concluded she couldn’t make a summit bid the following morning. Even if I could speak their language, what do you even say?
We had a 2:00am departure for the summit. The guides were superstar climbers and Angie literally was on their heals for 5 hours in the dark until we arrived for sunrise, which we couldn’t see from the summit. It was a great adventure. We got hooked up with crampons, boots, ice axes, tent, gloves, etc. I ended up wearing my New Balances because no Naxi people have feet my size. Big mistake!!! New nickname, Arie 8 Toes.
From here we headed to historic Lijiang and stayed in our most comfortable guesthouse to date. Good thing because we were both plagued with Mao Tse-Tung’s revenge. This must be a sign…. time to get out of China.
Traveling in China is a love hate relationship. The landscape is pricelessly stunning, diverse, and never-ending. The people are warm, extremely helpful and memorable in their desperate attempts to babble in some English. Because the chain smoking 40 year old tacky blazer wearing man who spits any and everywhere and throws and elbows you in the kidney when he wants to pass is such a more entertaining story, I rarely talk about the 20:1 ratio of helpful, great Chinese to each manner less degenerate. Chinese, Tibetans, and Naxi individuals spent time helping us buy medication, find snow jackets, navigate a menu, read bus schedules, negotiate prices, etc. All for the whopping price of $0… just a big smile and a thank you. We’ll be back to China, undoubtedly.
But for now, it’s on to Burma overland via Ruili. Recommended reading originally from our friends Leah and Joanne, but now us too is Amy Tan’s Saving Fish from Drowning about traveling along the Burma road…. very similar to the trip we did, but described by a brilliant narrator who is native Chinese.