December 10, 2011

Next will follow the main highlights of my last semester teaching English in Sichuan. I’ll start by expounding a bit on the task of English teaching. This semester I have been teaching British and American Culture and English Writing. Both of these classes are a lot more fun to teach than the dreaded, amorphous Oral English. It has been especially satisfying to teach writing, because of the opportunity to see growth in a student. I spent a month teaching essay writing; how to write a thesis statement and supporting arguments, describing plagiarism, down to smaller details like where to place a comma or period, or why not to use 5 different verb tenses in one paragraph. To my great pleasure, more than half of my students were able to write a passable essay.


In late November, we subjected ourselves to the annual Mount Emei pilgrimage. This time, we decided against hiking all the way to the summit, since the top is invariably crowded with day trippers out for a photo shoot in the snow. We set out from the bus station, in holding with tradition, and took two days to climb to the Elephant Bathing Pool. The third day we walked the shorter way down.

The weather the full three days was something between misting and sprinkling. We occasionally broke out of a cloud bank, only to climb into another layer of cloud. This gave an illusion of tiny spaces and short staircases.

Temples never before visited were duly admired.

Temples admired on previous journeys were lovingly embraced.

The Nine Deities Cave was explored. Andrew borrowed one of the large candles from the altar and crept down a few hundred meters of carved stairs. At the bottom was a shrine lit by a solitary hanging light bulb.

The Elephant Bathing Pool monastery, recently painted and cloaked in mist.


Another highlight was the annual MCC Retreat, this year in Shanghai. Much of the weekend was spent in gatherings and meetings, but there was also a free afternoon to ramble the streets of Shanghai.

British colonial architecture along the Bund.

On the Bund, looking over the river to Pudong.


The last thing I want to talk about is my social life. In the last month really, I have made some good friends. This is Li Na. She is from Xinjiang Province and is in the process of preparing for her wedding there next year. Her betrothed is a really cool guy who works in the jade industry. Their English is about as good as our Chinese, so it’s incredibly fun to talk to them.

I have also recently made friends with a young man who owns two restaurants in Leshan. He doesn’t speak any English, but is able to speak standard Mandarin despite being from Leshan. He is also one of the best natural communicators I’ve met. He’s able to grasp meaning from 5 words and some hand gestures and seems to enjoy doing this with us over long evenings. He will interpret what other Chinese people say into simple Mandarin which we usually can understand. He is also incredibly generous, eager to take us out to try new food (he threw us a banquet over Thanksgiving weekend because he knew we were at loose ends) and introduce us to his extensive network of cousins and friends. We have an invitation to spend Spring Festival with his family in the countryside.



October 10, 2011

Our national holiday week was crowned with a trip to Jiuzhaigou in the company of Ruth and Timothy. The national park (in the Minshan range of the Himalayas) has about five unique things going on at once, including a couple of Tibetan villages and some rare geology. The combined effect of these things makes for a kind of fairyland.

The main attractions of the park are the lakes and waterfalls that run along two steep valleys. The high altitude, sunlight, mineral content, reflections, and absence of water or air pollution cooperate to make the deep blue, green, turquoise, and sometimes purple colors of the water. There weren’t many glaciers left from last winter, but the water was still flowing the whole length of the valley. The park information claims that Long Lake (above) doesn’t have any surface outlets, losing all of its water through seepage. Since most of the rock in the valley is karst, “seepage” can mean full-fledged underwater rivers. Walking in a lower area of the park, we came to the end of a lake that unlike other lakes, didn’t have a waterfall leading to the next lake. Puzzled, we continued down a dry riverbed for a while only to meet the lake runoff suddenly as it came out of the ground again. That particular lake only spills its banks in the spring at the height of glacial melt.

I had never imagined an ecosystem of woods and waterfalls together. Riding the shuttle bus up the mountain, you look out the window and see jewel-like lakes separated by a scrubby looking woods. Walking down the boardwalks, you realize that this same woods is actually one large, slow waterfall. Invisible from a distance, these shallow waters flow evenly between the trees creating the effect of a moving, crystalline woodland floor.

It’s incredible to see a tree growing out of flowing water, sometimes a couple of stray roots drifting free in the current. This can happen in part due to the travertine effect; the water deposits limestone, petrifying leaves and branches and creating pockets and platforms for plants to grow.  Rocks and trees growing on top of each other, inorganic and organic alike fueled by the flowing stream.

The tips of dead tree trunks quickly become stone-encrusted islands that support new growth.

The top of Pearl Falls, an advancing wall of travertine.

A side view of Pearl Falls.

A lake with particularly stunning color and National Day crowds.

Reflections in Panda Lake. You can see logs deep below the surface.  The lake’s depth is more than 16 meters on average, it’s hard to tell but you’re actually seeing very far downThis lake is surrounded by a lot of small bamboo, so the claims of giant panda habitation might not be far off (although only 20 live in the park).

A lake near the largest of the Tibetan villages had some water powered prayer wheels. Also spotted on the journey: solar powered prayer wheels for car dashboards and a wind powered prayer wheel on the roof of a house.

The falls below Arrow Bamboo Lake, where Hero was filmed.

More of Arrow Bamboo Falls, which stretched for quite a ways through the woods. The boardwalks were well situated, allowing access near waterfalls and over lakes, all the while causing less impact to the environment than trails.

National Day

October 3, 2011

In celebration of the week-long National Holiday (commemorating October 1, 1949 when Mao announced the establishment of the PRC), the college took the foreign teachers to Liujiang. The road from Leshan to Liujiang winds through heavily laden orange and pomelo orchards, recently drained and harvested rice patties, and haystacks that conjure Monet’s gothic brother. The town of Liujiang has the sterile, segregated feel of a Chinese tourist town built in the traditional, old style. It being National Day, the town was crawling with relaxed Sichuan folk looking for revelment. Almost every majiang table was surrounded with chairs, brimming with glasses full of tea and the husks of boiled peanut shells. Children occupied the banks of the river, mostl armed with water guns. Parents for once let the kids do pretty much whatever they liked, including shooting unarmed bystanders with river water.

There was an elegant playground modeled after a kungfu training course.

The locals were enthusiastic about roasting whole animals; mostly duck, chicken, and rabbit.

The town’s strangler fig trees might be the oldest trees we’ve seen in China yet. It’s so rare to see trees that lasted the Great Leap Forward, let alone the last 500 years.


August 3, 2011

Yesterday, Cherry served as the guide to our small band of lychee hunters. It was sunny, for the first time in weeks. We discovered a small bus station in Leshan that takes passengers to the countryside around Leshan. We paid 4 yuan each for the ride. Yesterday was market day (a predetermined day chosen according to the lunar calendar), so there was some heated jostling to get on the bus. The demographic in the countryside is almost all octogenarian. It really leaves you wondering who will be doing the farming in 20 or 30 years.

We set our eyes to this farm, and followed the tenant through ripening rice patties and taro patches to a back orchard of citrus and lychee. These particular lychee trees had been well picked, unlike some heavily fruited trees we passed on the road.

Lychees, it turns out, are native to southern China; this might explain the similarity between the Chinese word “lizhi” and the English “lychee”. There are written records of lychee cultivation as far back as 2000 years ago in China. Also says wikipedia, “In the 1st century, fresh lychees were in such demand at the Imperial Court, that a special courier service with fast horses would bring the fresh fruit from Guangdong.” This knowledge somehow lent a bit more heft to our purpose.

The lychee farmer, toting 4 kilos of fruit.

This is the farmhouse where we haggled over lychee bruising, coloration, and price. On top of the mountain behind the house, you can see a row of eucalyptus trees. In the 1950’s, the Chinese started planting them en masse to reforest large areas quickly.

We ended the day with a ride up the river. I also learned that it is possible to eat too many lychees.


July 7, 2011

We frittered away an evening and a night in Bishkek. The city has an ample number of abandoned Soviet buildings. What you don’t realize about abandoned Soviet buildings until you see one in the Tian Shan steppes, is how beautiful they are. It sometimes feels like you’re stumbling upon a lost civilization of more advanced technology. You’re left awestruck by Soviet ambition.

The fossils of the USSR crop up everywhere.  The main roads in downtown Bishkek have trolley tracks, electrical wires and old, functioning trolleys. Exploring around Issy-Kul, you’ll come across a long, well constructed road, now only used  by families taking summer rambles and herds of sheep. In the countryside, you’ll pass a crumbling factory where today only farms exist. A Kyrgyz man we met said that “unemployment” is a word the Kyrgyz have only known in the last 2 decades.

Here are some Soviet-themed pictures of Bishkek.

In the foreground, the trolley wires of Bishkek (and a dirty camera lens), in the background the clock tower. The main public transportation is the marshrutka, small vans that take you anywhere from across town to across the country.

The museum of art.

Turkish baths.


July 5, 2011

Andrew and I are going to be publishing a whole slew of posts about our 3 week foray through Central Asia and Western China. We’ll try to get it all recorded before we go radio silent during a 2 week stay with a family in rural Sichuan (outside of Nanchong for those who like to know where we are).

We were only able to spend 3 days in Kazakhstan, and all of this time in Almaty. Just enough time to get the Cyrillic alphabet down (much lamentations were made regarding a certain other writing system) before heading into Kyrgyzstan.

The city of Almaty is doing really well. On the overnight sleeper bus from Urumqi to Almaty, we met a Kazakh guy (of Russian decent; he didn’t actually speak much Kazakh, only Russian) who had been studying Chinese in Harbin. His take on President  Nazarbayev (the first and current president of Kazakhstan) is that he’s finally finished making himself vastly wealthy at the expense of the country, and now has nothing more to do but help Kazakhstan. He said that most people don’t want a different president, because they’re afraid the process will start all over again.

There are almost no Soviet era buildings to be found around Almaty — only European style city blocks broken apart by a liberal number of well kept rose gardens and boulevards of tall trees. For being so close to China, the culture has much more in common with Europe–doner kebab, coffee shops, chocolate factories, cheese. With only the occasional Chinese grocery store or Chinese business man to be found, you would never know how close you are to the Chinese border. We actually saw more South Korean restaurants and shops than Chinese.

This is the cheery Zenkov Cathedral nestled in one of the city’s parks. It’s built almost entirely out of wood.

Inside, there were 4 women tending to the candle altars scattered about the front. The candles were small and fast-burning, so the tenders used brushes to spread the melted wax around (or brush it up?). We saw a couple of Russian women, of the stiletto heels, bleached hair and mini-skirt variety, pull neck scarves over their heads as they stepped into the cathedral.

In cases of vampires, you can get holy water on tap.

A couple of blocks from the cathedral, a Turkish style mosque. Most of the mosques in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have shiny tin-covered domes.

On the theme of things you can get on tap in Almaty, behold: kumis (fermented mare’s milk). It tastes like sausage and buttermilk and vinegar. In Kyrgyzstan, horse farmers sell it alongside back country roads or out of the back of their cars in town.

The vodka isles in grocery stores were…staggering. The staple foods were also heavily influenced by Russia — lots of cold mayonnaise-drizzled salads, borsch, and pelmeni.

The Ruins of Jiaohe

July 5, 2011

Southeast of Urumqi is mostly desert, with rivers and streams that cut deep, square-shaped canyons in the powdery stone that makes up the local bedrock.  Where these gullies come together at the confluence of streams, you can sometimes see a heavy, squat, broad arch carved into the rock, mostly filled with bricks except for a door with a barred window or two, hobbit holes in the bottoms of great cubes of flat-topped stone. 

Jiaohe was the city that dominated much of this region for the last couple millenia.  It’s carved out of a mesa of stone whose sheer walls make great natural fortifications.  The flat, fertile valleys on both sides are heavily cultivated with fields of grapes and grain.

Across the valley you can see that there is a similar wall of rock going up to a flat top like the one Jiaohe was carved into (with distant mountains on the horizon).  There are two significant differences between that rock wall and the one we are standing on. Jiaohe is an island, an isolated plateau, because of the gulleys that surround it on either side.  And Jiaohe is about twenty feet or so shorter, which is what happens two thousand years after you start carving soft stone into Swiss cheese.

The brickwork underfoot is new, of course, the result of being declared a UNESCO world heritage site.

Once you’ve walked up the broad, wall-flanked ramp from the bus station up to the city, the main street stretches in front of you, with the remains of government buildings and temples dominating the center.  From up there, you can get a good look around the plateau.

If you look closely at the walls of the Big Monastery below, you can see squarish blocks.  That wall, unlike the rest of the city, was actually built instead of carved.  At this point we started to wonder what religion we’re looking at here.  The bilingual plaques littered about weren’t particularly illuminating.

Beyond the monastery the ground gets flatter.  That part of town is directly exposed to the constant scourging of wind and sand which shreds stone like tissue paper.

Enduring the erosion are the worn down nubs of a stupa forest, a hundred squat, eight-foot pyramids worn shapeless, with a massive central structure sporting holes for wooden additions long gone.  Stupas= Buddhism, but from what culture?

Circling back through town we visited the central temple.  Definitely Buddhism, complete with Buddhas.

It turns out that the city may have Indo-Aryan roots going way back, but really reached a golden age as the capital of the Ju Shi dynasty.  In 450 AD it became part of the Tang dynasty and united with the main body of China for the first time.  Around the 9th century the Uyghur Khaganate rose to power in the region, only to be conquered by the Kyrgyz (both Turkik groups).  Held briefly by Tibet, the history of Jiaohe ends, like so many cities, with Genghis Khan and the Mongols.

Andrew and I have been in Xinjiang (New Frontier) Province for about a week now. We’ve spent this time on a train, in Urumqi (the capitol city of the province), and in the areas around Urumqi.

Urumqi is the only place we’ve seen where the Uygurs and Han people live together. In the desert oasis towns, the only Han people you see are tourists . I think Xinjiang Province is one of the few places where people grow up learning Chinese characters, the Latin alphabet, and the Arabic alphabet (Uygur, although not related to Arabic, is written in the Arabic alphabet. It’s a Turkik language — in fact some Uygur guys we met on the train said that they can understand Turkish.)

Uygur food tastes more Middle Eastern than Chinese. They eat meat, wheat, and rice more than vegetables. Vegetables are served pickled on the side as a condiment more than a dish (more on how they procure water later…) Outside of the carefully laid irrigation areas, gardens are small and not so common.

They stick uncooked flatbreads to the inside of a big, round charcoal oven with iron spears. The flatbreads magically stick to the walls well out of reach of the coals and get fished out 5 minutes later.

Kebabs are roasted over coals in sometimes intricately stamped tin grills.

Grapes thrive in the lowlands along streams. Some dried fruit vendors will have close to 15 varieties of raisins for sale — from large dark ones near an inch long to really tiny ones about the size of  small bead.

In downtown Turpan, they use grape arbors to shade the streets.


Markets seem pretty central to daily Uygur life. In Turpan, a small town 2.5 hours outside of Urumqi, the market (Uygur: baza) stretches on for half the length of the downtown. There’s a vast indoor section full bolts of fabric and seamstresses with foot-powered sewing machines. Chinese clothing factories don’t make much in the way of Muslim clothing. There’s a gold jewelry section full of really shiny, reddish gold which they sell by the weight (each piece of jewelry has a tag with its weight in grams). When you ask the price, the shopkeeper multiplies the weight by the price per gram, usually 335 yuan.

They sell a lot of beautiful handmade carpets, often with a rose motif.


In the smaller Uygur towns, the doors are crafted with care. These pictures are from Tuyuk, a small village outside of Turpan.

The tiny local mosque.

Some doors are set into rock walls, many appear to be homes while others are abandoned.

In the heat of the day when only mad dogs, Englishmen (and tourists) are out, Uygurs take naps on outdoor carpet-covered daybeds.

The graveyard on the edge Tuyuk.

The call to prayer in Tuyuk, the first live muezzin Andrew or I had ever heard.

Monkey in the park!

April 29, 2011

Coming back from Walmart in the 100 degree oven of a late Sichuan afternoon, I spied a monkey sunning itself in the park by our apartment building. By the time we got up to our balcony, it had made its way into the trees.

Gift Giving

April 25, 2011

Gift giving is important in Chinese culture. It is customary to give gifts to superiors at any moment for any reason. It’s an indispensable way to build guanxi. Some people give small gifts, others give really expensive gifts (2000 yuan bottles of baijiu) according to their means and the importance of the recipient. It’s not seen as bribery, but as putting your money where your mouth is to show how you feel about someone. As foreigners, we get a bit of a free pass. If we give anything at all, it’s worth points in guanxi.

Some of my favorite gifts from students:

Mini-terracotta soldiers from Xi’an!

There are a lot of lucky things in China: the color red, shoes, knots, fish, bats, the number eight. Many of these are based on a phonetic similarity between a positive word (like harmony, “xie”) and the lucky object (like shoes, also “xie”). Similarly, other words are unlucky because of their phonetic associations (like the number four, “si” and death “si”). Some buildings, especially in Hong Kong, don’t have a fourth floor because of this.

Sadly, one of these little guys lost a leg; but they’re no less dear for the wear.