Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Mu's mansion and mountain views from the Old City

Breakfast yesterday at Lamu's House of Tibet, our new favorite place, right across the street from our inn.

Michael had the Tibetan breakfast special: yak yogurt, yak butter tea and tsampas..all tolerably good, but weird.

Helen wants you to know that Mommy bought her a ring that a big girl would wear, and she is taking excellent care of it.

We went exploring to the Mu mansion, a Ming-style palace on the edge of the old town, where the ruling family of the area once lived. It had fallen into disrepair and was completely destroyed, but was reconstructed from historical records in 1998. So it has that new feeling, but still visually pleasing.

My favorite part was the hillside Jade Garden, with some flowers still in bloom even in January.

From the garden we began climbing up the covered stairs to the Lion Hill Park, with views of the rooftops of the old town and the mountains beyond.

Thomas took this picture..a nice one, I think. The weather has been cold (in the 40s) and crisp, with some sun.

We visited a Taoist temple, where we didn't take pictures but did have a nice chat with the priests about the girls. The priest told me my Chinese was very good...nice of him to lie like that.

The yin yang symbol is associated with Taoist beliefs.

Please forgive all the mountain photos -- I am so captivated by the views.

I love seeing all the babies on their moms' backs...a few minutes before taking this picture, we ran into some people we know...what are the odds? They are teachers from Xi'an who had been on the Sichuan bus trip with us back in October. They had just finished hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge-- the major hiking destination around here for the hardy twentysomething crowd.

At night we wished on a floating candle and followed it down the canal through the city,

Altogether a satisfying the afternoon we spent several hours doing nothing...reading in the courtyard while the kids watched gong fu movies on TV. After the little girls went to sleep, we left Thomas in charge and walked two steps out the door for a drink, which was a thrill for us..and a foretaste of the future when Thomas will be old enough to babysit regularly!

Lijiang --our Shangri-la

Here is our little home in Lijiang, emphasis on the little...but the inn is in a fantastic historic part of Lijiang called Old Town. Block after block of narrow winding alleys and traditional architecture.

This is our courtyard with Helen in our doorway. I was really happy to find the place scrupulously clean -- quite a treat for 3 star accommodations in China, and only $50 a night including high speed internet in our room. So you will be hearing from me after all.

A little about Lijiang -- it is in the far northwestern part of Yunnan, not far from the Myanmar border. It is in a valley which has always been a crossroads between the Tibetan plateau, Myanmar and the rest of China. As we flew in , we saw a lot of snow capped peaks which surround the valley. If you want to stretch it a bit, which we are happy to do, you could call these the foothills of the Himalayas. We're hoping to see them up close later in the week after adjusting to the altitude. The Shangri-la reference is based on James Hilton's novel, "Lost Horizons" which I bought last night in a book shop. About 4 Chinese cities claim to be the inspiration for the book, and one was even renamed Shangri-la by the provincial government. Lijiang's claim is flimsy, but since I am here and not there, I'll take it.

The streets of the Old Town are a delight. It does all seem a little bit staged for tourists, but really well-done --the kind of tourist place that makes you glad you are a tourist. And since its winter, its not too crowded. And Sophia would like you to know that there are PONIES in the streets.

Thomas even took a ride and posed in the guy's giant furry hat.

Helen had to have a turn, too.

We had some Yunnan coffee on a balcony overlooking the square, and some local dancers began down below. Check the video, if you can.

This area is the historic home of the Naxi people. Their weaving and crafts are in shops all over, and they have their own written language, Dongba, which is the only known pictographic language still in use. I bought Thomas a Dongba dictionary yesterday, so we'll get him to blog about it.

The architecture of the Old Town has been preserved and maintained with lots of money from UNESCO. In the late 1990s, an earthquake destroyed much of Lijiang. But the traditional Naxi buildings withstood the quake - only the modern buildings were damaged. So traditional style ones were built in their place, enlarging the old neighborhood and ensuring a steady flow of money to preserve it. Architecturally its stunning.

We strolled around a bit yesterday, although we were tired and had lugged our bags all the way across the Old Town, because the cab dropped us at the wrong gate (no cars are allowed in). A fellow tourist, Chinese guy fluent in English, helped us find our way. Every one is so friendly here, we have met some nice people from all over the world, including a California family who now lives in Shanghai.

This woman was sure that her demonstration proving that her silver was real (that's a blow torch she is holding) was going to get me to buy a $25 silver bracelet, but I wasn't ready to commit -- did get Helen a ring there which she is treasuring, but I fear will be lost this week...

Love all the local costumes, though some are a bit elaborate.

More tomorrow.....

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Amazed by Shilin - the Stone Forest

We had vowed to see the Stone Forest rain or shine, so despite the 80% chance of rain in the forecast,we hired a car to drive us there - about 2 hours away. On the way, the driver was quite insistent that we stop off and see this temple on the side of the mountain. Turns out, it was quite impressive, though there was not enough English signage for me to give you the name. I will look it up some time. There was a giant gold happy Buddha to greet us.

Absolutely beautiful flowering trees among the statues...I mean this is January!!

Some of the most colorful and best preserved temple guardians we have seen in China yet.

A strange mandala of some kind...see Helen's reflection?

You would NOT want to mess with this guy...I think the temple is in good hands.

Finally we arrived at the Stone Forest..and no rain! Only some wet drippy rocks, which added to the effect (and the excitement, as the stone stairs were a little slippery. The stone forest is a major tourist area, although by arriving at lunch time and foregoing lunch (I had packed peanut butter and crackers) we avoided nearly all the tourists.

A lot of the larger stone formations have names...this one is named Ashima, who was a girl in love with a boy in the true Romeo and Juliet style legend. The local ethnic group here is called the Sani, and there were tons of costumed Sani people all over the place, giving tours, etc. We scoffed at the idea of a tour guide, after all there was an English map and lots of signs....

Sophia took some time in the backpack, and we fed the ravenous carp in the Lotus Pond.

Then we discovered the "Deep and Narrow Valley and the real adventures began.

These formations were made by water..some of the area was under water and everything was delightfully damp and moss-covered.

There were numerous caves and crevices, and the paths led deeper and deeper into the labyrinth. Lots of stairs.

Sophia, powerful two year old in her yellow boots, did a fair amount of climbing on her own, especially when the low clearance made it impossible to keep her in the backpack.

Thomas led us in..and without a guide, he eventually led us out...but in the mean time there were some moments when the map and signs did not match up, and I felt a rising tide of panic....we were supposed to be at the car in 20 minutes...where were we? Suddenly we spotted the first human we had seen in a half hour or more, and found that our path had led us out right by the entrance to the park!! So while we didn't see the whole forest, we saw the deepest and darkest part and were all pretty satisfied with that.

We came back to go for a swim in the hotel pool which was quite cold. Only Thomas and Helen ventured in.

In the evening we had a meal of Yunnan specialties..although they were out of the herb and chicken dish I wanted, we ate pretty well..I really liked the fried cheese (its a sheep's cheese, but tasted like feta..fried with a sliced of Yunnan ham..delicious. Thomas liked the huge side of roast beast..I think pork..that we ordered based on the menu pictures. On our after dinner walk we saw this man making chalk pavement drawings...

Tomorrow morning we leave Kunming for the smaller and more remote town of Lijiang, where we will spend the rest of our vacation. I really have had a very positive impression of Kunming. I have said that I couldn't imagine anyplace other than Xiamen where I could really enjoy living..but I would love to live here. The pollution has not been a factor (although hard to tell, since it rained) was warm and pleasant, especially when the sun came out in the afternoon, the people are laid back and friendly, and the city has a nice open feel in the modern downtown area, and a diverse and eclectic feel in the old city market. Overall -- I would really recommend it for a visit!

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Kunming -Green Lake and Crossing the Bridge Noodles

If we're lucky, you can watch a video I shot at the Green Lake Park in Kunming at the bottom of the page. There were hordes of gulls on the lake, like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock when they got to swarming the paddleboats.

So naturally we had to get a paddle boat, and the men folk provided the leg power..actually Helen pedaled briefly but her legs didn't really reach, and Thomas would not give up his spot to me. He liked steering the best, but we did bump into the underside of a few bridges.

Do you see how even Sophia is into the "chezi" 2 finger pose?

Kunming is called the eternal spring this tulip bulb in January will attest..being forced for the Spring Festival, I think.

Some old timers provided the musical backdrop...

As it began to drizzle we left the park for a bit of shopping. In the folk craft store, Helen and Sophia got caps made by the Yi people.

The shopkeeper and I managed to communicate about the different styles of dress for some of the local minority groups.

Ok -- this is Chinglish, I know, and I am stealing it from Michael, but this good advice belongs here with the "Crossing the Bridge" Noodles, 过桥米线 (guò qiáo mĭxiàn)

The famous local dish features super hot broth topped with a thin layer of oil (hence the sign) in which you quickly add slivers of meat, fish, egg and vegetables while at your table....then the delicious rice noodles and ready to eat!

So the story behind the name is that a woman whose husband was studying for the imperial examinations would deliver his lunch to him every day. She had to cross a bridge to get it too him, so she made the broth really hot to be sure it would still be warm for him.

After lunch it began to rain in earnest, so Sophia slept in her stroller while we passed an hour in the Yunnan Provincial Museum. Lots of artifacts from the bronze culture of the Di people 3000 years ago, discovered in the 50s when some bronze artifacts turned up in the bird market and an archeologist spotted them and began to dig...thousands of pieces were found, large and small.

There were also a lot of Buddhist treasures from Dali, a city about 4-6 hours away, which we are bypassing due to traveling with small children.

The weather broke and we had a nice stroll around town, towards the pagodas, on the way, lots of Ming-era architecture (Xiamen has almost none, so its a treat)

This incongruous building was my favorite...

Finally the pagodas...West Pagoda, in a crumbling neighborhood.

Sophia looking very local and attracting A LOT of attention..a car stopped in the middle of the road to stare at her.

And the East Pagoda, a little better kept up, although the area around it seemed too "gentrified"with chain restaurants going into fake Ming era buildings.

We went back to the hotel to watch a video and out for a late dinner. Because we are party people and veteran parents, we selected McDonalds for tonight -- a popular choice, though not in the Lonely Planet Guide. It even had a tiny play area and hong bao (red envelopes given to children for Chinese New Year) in the Happy Meals (coupons for free pops inside). When you are a kid who has been sightseeing for 6 hours..McDonalds is a highlight.

Do you love Thomas's new look or what? Its a Chinese do-rag.