Thursday, September 25, 2014

Vignettes from a World Traveler

On Education

I am home in the land of the free and the home of the braves (and the Washington Redskins). I ran into my old acquaintance Winona LaDuke down at Battery Park on Monday after marching the prior day in a 400,000 + person Climate March. She has always had so many common sense things to say about education. Today, as I flew for $201 (plus baggage fees!) from the Big Apple to the Mile High Metropolis, I read about First Amendment restrictions on reporters in our national parks and about a Colorado county where they want to revise the textbooks to, possibly, erase Caesar Chavez and the browner parts of our sordid history from the books.

I get lots of questions about education in China, where the scrubbed version of history is the status quo, but have to wonder if the same thing is happening here. First they attacked science (climate change and evolution), which they continue to do. Now the crazies are on to new subjects.

As some of you know, part of this five week stint in America includes ten days of taking two Chinese students and a group of about nine parents on a tour of prep schools. This will bring me back to the East from LA on October 1 and includes a sojourn to St. Paul's School and the Academy, as we Exonians pretentiously refer to our alma mater.

On blogging

One thing I have enjoyed on my trip home is the relative availability of free WiFi and not having to use a VPN to access the New York Times, where, a couple days ago, I read China Clamps Down on Web, Pinching Companies Like Google. That has led to my blogging less over the last few months. It just takes too long to upload photos. It has been fun to be back. I ran into a couple of people on the march who I had not seen in a decade or two. One bemoaned the diminution in my blogging. I may try to do a bit more when I get back, but an earlier post announced that I was cutting back.

Self-Indulgence (aka Updates on Yours Truly)

I have joined the International Festival Chorus (IFC) and am considering taking a 茶道 class, which will both consume a fair bit of time. I will sing Handel's Messiah, which happens to be my favorite piece of music, in both Beijing and Tianjin!

I have turned forty on this trip and this trip home has included staying in a different bed nearly every night so far, often with friends who have kids in the range of four to ten. I am feeling a bit behind and badgered by those who ask when I will come home. I will! But not yet. I am not done. There is more that I want to see and learn about these people on the other side of the world.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Yunnan: A Peak, A Town, and a Forest

Faced with a week of no classes, I made plans to travel to Yunnan. I went alone, which was brave or foolish or both. I flew to the capital city, Kunming, known as the "City of Eternal Spring," and landed in the early afternoon last Monday. One of the reasons I had initially wanted to come here was the central role this place played in World War II and prior to US involvement in the war when the Flying Tigers were doing the most dangerous flight route in all history, called "The Hump." Kunming was the place where pilots would touch down after flying over the Himalayas from Burma (now Myanmar). Any trace of that history here seems to have been erased and forgotten.

I departed from Kunming on Saturday morning so that I could teach my American History class on Saturday afternoon. In the interim, I took a night train to and then from LiJiang, which is famous for its "Old Town(s)" and for being in the shadow of a 5,596 meter or 18,360 foot mountain massif. The far side of the mountain forms one side of Tiger Leaping Gorge (Hutiao Xia), but I did not have time to venture there. As my father is wont to say, "You have to save something for next time."  I did, however, stay in the Old Town at a fun hostel and "climb" the mountain.

玉龙雪山 (Yu Long Xue Shan) or Jade Dragon Snow Mountain is gorgeous, which means that Chinese brides and bridegrooms traipse into off-limits areas with their camera crews and do wedding photo shoots, as is the custom here.

To say that I climbed the mountain is a huge exaggeration, but I sure paid a lot of renminbi. I was not alone, though. It is a week prior to the May holiday--China's Labor Day and five-day mandatory vacation. The tourist attractions and the trains will soon be choked with travelers. To some extent, as you can see from the queue in this picture, the lines are already quite long.

This line is where people wait for the bus to the cable car. There is a counter when you go through the turnstile and more than 2,100 people had been through before me that day. I spotted only three other bai ren (white people) in line--one Russian, one German, and one unidentified alien. There are many tour groups in uniform jackets or matching hats. Some close friends in China just decide to match their clothes or hats to show their closeness. I suspect that is the case with the two blue bonnets.

Fortunately, throughout the trip I was able to join up with kind people who spoke English. On this leg of the expedition, I was taken from my hostel by a girl named Lizzy to an area where parked vans are all waiting to bargain with tourists for a ride to the mountain park. (Lizzy is an "intern," which is to say her room and board at the hostel are free in return for helping out around the place. She plans to go to Tibet in a few weeks.) Here I joined a husband and wife from Guangzhou and we journeyed to the mountain together in a taxi van. We stopped once along the way so that they might buy a can of oxygen since we would be well above 8,000 feet. I opted to be tough (or walk slowly so as to adjust and not get winded).

We shared the cable car on the way down with a group of people who had driven from Beijing. They were on a huge tour.

After the bus drove us from 3356 meters and the cable car dropped us off at 4306 feet, we climbed stairs to 4636 meters. I was proudly wearing my Red Sox hat, which I was given as a keepsake at my good friend's wedding. He and I have climbed many mountains together and were the head of the PEA Outing Club when Bob Bates was still alive and Steve & Mary Gorman were frequent chaperons.

Along the trail were several interesting things. Aside from the maidens in wedding attire, I saw a couple of people with their shirts off (it was 6 degrees Celsius), plenty in high heels and other ridiculous footwear (taking "selfies"), and my new buddies got a picture of a crazy American planting the Chinese flag at the height of the opened section of the observation stairway.

After coming down off the mountain, I went alone to the Black Dragon Pool. Among the things to see was something one of my pals told me is a "mahjong tree"--no matter whether I was being had or not, it was a remarkable specimen. I could not resist shooting a couple pics of the park signage, either.

This is a sacred place to the Naxi People, one of China's 55 ethnic minorities. There are also lost children who come to meditate there, I guess, by the burbling brook. In fact, the whole Old Town is full of people in ethnic dress posing with tourists. I imagine there were people from the East who went West in the US to get their picture taken with Indians before they were totally acculturated. There is an aspect of keeping culture alive akin to the powwows in America, where you can see traditional drumming and dancing, but there is also an LA porn-shoot quality to some of the Chinese men toting around big Canons and telling the girls exactly where to stand. The town is famous for its canals and bridges. All of Yunnan is well-known for its flowers and selling the signature type of tea, puerh, which is grown and picked in the southern parts of the province

A very beautiful tea cabinet for storing discs of puerh tea, my favorite kind of tea.

After befriending a NaXi girl who worked at a tea place, who said that I could come play in the mountains with her family if I was ever back in Yunnan; nibbling on some yak meat; and eating twice at a restaurant featuring Naxi traditional snacks, I took the train back to Kunming. It left at 9:30 PM and brought me to Kunming's bustling train station at 5:30 AM. By the time I had taken the wrong bus twice and gotten myself to the East Bus Station, it was nearly 9 AM. Another one hour and a half bus ride to the Stone Forest (Shilin) was made bearable, because an architecture student sat down next to me and we conversed for the rest of the trip there. Her father is a chief planner in Xi'an. She and her mother were on a vacation together, the mother having just retired from her professorship a few days prior. She will go to St. Louis, MO, next year to continue her architectural studies. I spent the next several hours with her and her mother, who also spoke passable English.

These are my pictures from the Stone Forest, a karst topography. Again, I had to take a photo of a couple signs. One indicates that smoking is permitted and the other, though hard to read, ends the English version of its text mid-sentence.