Monday, December 20, 2010

The Place Whose Name I Cannot Spell

Part 1: The Park Itself

This past weekend was a long one for Pat so he decided to give me an early Christmas present-a trip to Jiuzhaigou Valley- a national park about 450 kilometers to the north of Chengdu. We flew up on Thursday evening, landing in frigidly cold alpine weather. The altitude ranges from about 2000 to nearly 5000 meters above sea level. And there was ice... boy was there ever ice. A 70k drive from the airport to Jiuzhaigou Town, which would normally take the kamikaze taxi drivers about 30 to 45 minutes, instead took us around two hours. About 27 switchbacks down and up the mountain, we were dropped off at Uncle Jiang's Guesthouse- I highly recommend it. There's not much heat... or urbanization... in this part of the world, but somehow Uncle Jiang (who may or may not be a pimp) has cornered the market on hot water. Lots and lots of hot water. And they brew real coffee instead of instant.

Friday and half of Saturday were spent in the park itself. Big, beautiful scenes of waterfalls, lakes, and shoals greet those of us willing to get off the tour busses and hike it a bit. The park has a bit of a young and somewhat overstuffed life: Jiuzhaigou was declared a national park in 1982 (after the Chinese government kicked the Tibetans and other minorities living there off of their land); a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1992; and by 1997 it was proclaimed a World Biosphere Preserve. Bad Pauly Shore movie jokes notwithstanding, this place is unbelievable. The mineral compounds in the lakes have turned the water tremendous shades of emerald, turquoise, and all blues you could possibly imagine. It runs clear and free down a series of waterfalls, rivers, and creeks before filtering out of the valley and into other parts of Sichuan.

And the air is so clear there. At least on the two days we had, we could see up to the imposing reaches of glacially charged mountain peaks. It's something out of days that don't exist anymore. In fact, if it weren't for the over-emphasized and hideous tourist stations, you could positively forget that you were in China.

Part 2: A Three Hour Jam

For a multitude of reasons I won't bother explaining, Pat and I left Jiuzhaigou on Saturday afternoon and traveled to the crossroads town of Song Pan. There we planned on spending the night before catching an insanely early bus back to Chengdu. While only about 45 minutes by plane, the valley to the north is about 8 hours by bus, and that's on a good day.

Song Pan is a weird town. In the high season, I imagine it is a great place to be. Horseback tours into the surrounding mountains leave pretty regularly, taking pampered tourists and beaten travelers alike on a four day trek complete with bonfires, Tibetan grain and vegetable meals, and breathtaking views. I'm sure during those busy summer months there are heaps of people around and a real community exists. But in the low season, Song Pan is transformed into the town that time forgot. It's a little "Mad Max", to be honest- with dogs and young boys roaming the streets in equal abundance. It is cold, dirty, and unfriendly. The best word I can think of is 'sinister.' So Pat and I made an executive decision to turn in early and holed up in our room playing gin, snuggling under three down blankets, and waiting out the night.

I mentioned before that the bus between Chengdu and Song Pan is 8 hours on a good day-7 on a great day. Well, Sunday was not a great day, not a good day, not even a tolerably passable day. Sunday was the day of Kate's great cultural explosion. It happened to me once last year and I am hoping that this past weekend will be my one time this year. About halfway into the trip (and we were indeed making kickass time) we stopped. The bus driver turned off the engine, leaned out the window, and then put his head down. After some debate, some walking about, and some 20 minutes, Pat and I deduced that the cause of this pause in our journey was the paving. That's right- the road paving going on in a tunnel-bridge, in the middle of the day, on both sides of the road.

Here's the thing- and it took me a while to realize this- I am not a spoiled Westerner. I am not. It's just that I was raised in a place whose infrastructure manages to work at least marginally well the majority of the time. That does not make me spoiled. It makes me sad that the Chinese literally have no idea what kind of crap they are putting up with just because they don't know any better. Sure, I have been stuck in three or four hour traffic jams before- but never because a provincial road crew decided to completely shut down the major route (I cannot stress enough the fact that the only other road deadended across the river in a deadend town) during the time of day when the most traffic was sure to appear.

Sometime close to our third hour of watching nothing progress, I lost my cool. I had had enough of seeing people abuse the land and each other. You see, there is no concept of preserving the natural world in China. None whatsoever. Yes they have National Parks; no they don't care about throwing their garbage all over the place. Anywhere they weren't- that's where the Chineses' garbage went. Into the river, into the hillsides, straight onto the road. Which is why I started bellowing at people and eventually burst into tears. It may seem over dramatic- and it was- but spend some time here and then tell me there aren't days you went home and cried your eyes out. My problem Sunday was that home was still another 4 hours away and traffic was not moving.

Poor Pat, who calls me Eco-Bear, didn't know what to do. I'm sure he was just silently grateful that no one around me besides him spoke English. A good thing, too.

Part 3: Humbled, Put in my Place, and Then Some

Eventually we started moving again. I calmed down, had a cookie, and started reading (Bill Bryson's "A History of Nearly Everything"- check it out, you won't regret it). I was exhausted, dehydrated, and a little on edge; gritting my teeth everytime someone on the bus even glanced in my general direction.

And then the bus exited a tunnel only to be greeted by the ghost of a collapsed bridge with a brown sign stuck on it proclaiming that we were now entering the epicenter zone of the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake.

Go ahead. Take route 213 south/east through Sichuan Province. At some point, you will be re-routed across the river to a new 213. But look closely- you will still see crushed shells of cars sticking out of the rubble of a massive rockslide caused by an 8.0 earthquake. There, under the breathtaking sight of craggy mountains lousy with glacial ice, are the ruins of towns, roads, and lives.

It is a terrifying, sobering, and humbling reminder of the absolute and unchallengeable force of the natural world, which does what it wants. It does not matter how many earth-movers the Chinese now have stationed along the road in a massive rebuilding effort, it is still the site of painful and overwhelming destruction. The earth, so magnificent and yet so mangled by human dominance, fights back with stunning regularity and mind-blowing effectiveness.

It also puts that three hour traffic jam right back into appropriate perspective.

Until next time,

Wednesday, December 15, 2010



According to Pat this happens "like one every 10 years." Needless to say, when he came home from work, covered in icy white flakes, and said "I've been calling you for 15 minutes!" I lost my well-maintained cool and jumped outside, shoeless, to stand in wide-eyed wonder. It's not been too long since I last saw snow (dad and I took a trip to Maine this fall and happened to catch just a bit then), but snow in China, especially here in the urbanized armpit of China (which is a term of endearment that could be applied to any major city), is just different.

It reminds me of calmness. I suppose it always has, this snow stuff. But even moreso now. Snow is this silent harbinger of simplicity and grace and childhood deliciousness- hot chocolates, candy canes, wool hats and mittens. It makes things right in an often very wrong world. My friends in New Hampshire will laugh at me- they have experienced far more of it than I have and I imagine have a very different opinion of it than me. But I will keep my childish enthusiasm all the same, thank you.

Until that is, the snow showers tonight mess with our flights tomorrow (we are off to a spectacular-rumored- National Park a little to the North of us). Then I will complain, and fuss and cause a scene.

I am what I am- nothing if not completely immature.


Friday, December 3, 2010

A Quick Perspective

Seriously Quick.

Just to put things in perspective... If you are ever wondering if what people say about the air quality in urban China is true...

Sometimes I like to walk behind people who are smoking. That's right. Second hand smoke feels, I do not jest, cleaner than normal urban air. I think it is possibly because I can actually identify the scent I am inhaling.

Welcome to China.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


It's a thing. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. This will be my second year away from home and my family on T-Give. The first time I was living in Paris as a student, winging my way through the Sorbonne's culture classes (amazingly enough I passed all with flying colors- alas, I didn't actually need any of the credits for my college career). There were (and are still I gather) probably many places I could have gone to celebrate the holiday. At 19, however, I was a little scared of a big city, a little uncomfortable with showing how much I liked such an American holiday, and definitely suffering from an inflated ego (it has been, in the past decade, the only time I have been stricken by such a malady). So I skipped it.

But this time, this time I celebrate. And I'm doing it right. Tonight's dinner will be the second of three Thanksgiving dinners I will have this year. The first was at home in NC- after I begged my mom to give me an early holiday. The third will be a massive gathering of Pat's friends and co-workers at on of their apartments... not really my ideal but what can I do... except to kindly pester my dear boy until he agreed to have a small, considerably more intimate affair on the actual day of Thanksgiving.

I think the main reasons I prefer this holiday above all others have to do with what it stands for- and has stood for for (sorry about that grammar) the past nearly 4 centuries. Thanksgiving has not changed much over time. It began as a gathering and that's still what it is: a gathering of people to celebrate and recognise the abundance of good in their lives (or whatever amount of good they may be experiencing). There's no gimmick to Thanksgiving. Greeting card companies haven't mauled it; most department stores in fact skip it; the only marginally corporate thing about it is that most of us get time off for it (except for Pat... T-Give isn't really a thing in China)... oh and Black Friday.

But Thanksgiving is what it is: time set aside to be with friends and family and any number of loved ones; to be full of good food and conversations; to be ripe and overflowing with happiness (and a little drama because of course someone always cooks something wrong, or burns something, or the turkey button doesn't pop *love you mom*); to be at ease. If it has changed at all in the past four hundred years, it has only gotten better- in my ever humble, happily tryptophaned opinion.

With Love and Holiday Cheer from China

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Gas Lines

For some reason I don't quite yet understand, there is a distinct difference between 'gas stations' and the Sinopec that sits on a corner three blocks away. Does it really have to do with what type of gas the Sino offers? Anywho... everyday a line of cars, trucks (and by trucks I mean TRUCKS), motorbikes, some san-lin-ches (my heinous 'sound it out' spelling of the terrifying Chinese version of pedicabs), and the occasional government vehicle queues for gasoline- or whatever it is they are really peddling at the Sinopec. And the queue wraps, quite literally, around the corner... in fact it wraps around three corners. Sometimes the end of the line is stretched to the beginning; sometimes it goes past the beginning to form a second ring around the block.

Again I ponder what is actually sold here. And why it is that I rarely see cabs (real yellow ones!) queued? Ah- that's right. Cab drivers wouldn't actually make any money or have any sort of gainful employment if they had to wait for the Sinopec... I mean the people who do line up often fall asleep, or get into arguments with policemen about how far out their vehicles are sitting (not that it realistically matters- roads are not exactly set in stone around here)... the cabbies must have somewhere else to fill up.

But I digress. Of course this is a perfect example of the urban/technological/industrial explosion that is China. We are all familiar with the statistics. But the literal number of cars on the road here is never so obvious as when they are just sitting- still except for the noise of their horns, and waiting for gas. Because driving is a contact sport in China, it is interesting to see drivers at rest. And I get the feeling that they only do rest when in that epically serpentine queue.

An interesting book to read, if you want an easy, funny, and brutally honest introduction to Chinese culture is J. Maarten Troost's "Lost on Planet China." He too, like myself and every other writer, blogger, or casual spectator of China, deals with cars, traffic, traffic jams and the power of the automobile in this potentially soon-to-be outstandingly wealthy (monetary) nation. I worry that most of these posts will be overly influenced by Troost as I read the book... oh... weeks before I got here. Meh. You'll get used to it. And if you never take my advice to peruse it, you'll think me that much more original and witty. Cheers.

Meanwhile... because gas lines can mean oh so many things....

If you ever make it to Sichaun, get hot pot. But get it with the knowledge that your mouth with alternately throb and go numb; that your tummy will rumble; that your gas lines will indeed become inflamed. Friday night began a weekend long eat-fest that culminated in homemade pizza last night. But Friday, oh Friday, saw us sitting down on food street off of Shuhan Lu (the food street with the giant statue of- I kid you not- a hand holding chopsticks. That's right, erupting from the ground is a writs, with a hand, and some chopsticks. I love China) and ordering more food that you should be able to fit into the human body. That food, which included an array of mushrooms, two different versions of tofu, seaweed, cauliflower, meatballs, some other raw meat and oh (yeah, it's a vege called 'oh'), amongst other tasty items, would eventually be thrown into either a boiling vat of hot spiced oil or a boiling vat of considerably milder broth. Either way. So delicious. Once the meat is no longer raw (in theory) you just stick your chopsticks into that pot of hotness, swirl them around until you hit something solid, pluck it out, close your eyes, and eat. Hot is one of the regional specialties of Sichuan and rightly so. It's like comfort food but with the unfortunate side-effect that you know you will likely regret eating it as soon as the tingling starts in your lips.

But hot damn, it's worth it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Jet Lag

After something like 20 hours of travel time (and still facing nearly 8 more), I landed in China at 6 pm Friday the 12th. Lucky for me, it didn't really matter that I had spent 13 and a half cramped hours in economy class with little sleep or circulation in my bum- I have been in Beijing airport numerous times in many different states of consciousness. And so, after de-boarding and tiredly making my way through customs (cleared it with a one-way ticket, thanks Mao), standing in line at the luggage carousel, collecting to pieces of luggage that weigh nearly as much as I do, rechecking said pieces of luggage and clearing my third security check of the day, I sat down in PEK and debated the merits of TCBY (I eventually decided against it- what kind of yogurt of place doesn't have soft-serve?).

Then finally, FINALLY, I boarded my final flight. The three-hour hop to Chengdu. And I must say- you never know what you are going to experience in airports, on planes. For example, how many times you do come across a box of 'small-diameter, bone-crusing' arrows? Let alone when a stewardess is walking them up the aisle after having confiscated them from a fellow flyer? Yea- not too often eh?

So I can safely now say that I am in Chengdu, hanging out with my dear man, and driving him bananas with my jetlag induced crankiness. All I want to do is sleep and bitch and moan. Not exactly the most appealing attitude after having not seen my guy in nearly three months. I'm lucky he hasn't whomped me back on a plane headed anywhere that is not here. I must say it, not that it hasn't been said before, but jetlag is a Bitch. I mean, let's be realistic here. If the big guys in the sky- the string pullers extraordinaire, the fates and whatevers/whathaveyous, etc- intended for us human folk to be able to skip time zones like stones across a smooth pond, we probably would have developed speed on our own. Or wings. See where I'm going with this?

Instead we get planes. Very fast, very large tin cans that are launched into the sky (defying the laws of nature) and take you from point a to point b in the most effective way possible. What could be the downside? Oh that's right- having to force your body to adjust to a totally different schedule at the expense of other people's patience while they try to deal with your constant napping, nagging, and general sleeplessness-induced spaciness. Ah yes, the marvels of modern technology... making me a less pleasant person than I already am.

Cheers mates!