Last Thoughts from Chinese Soil…

I write this blog very hesitantly before I leave China and leave my wonderful study abroad experience behind.  Since the end of January I have lived and traveled in various parts of China including: Nanjing, Xi’an, Kunming, Yuanyang, Jianshui, Gejiu, Shangri-la (Zhongdian), Dali, Lijiang, Weishan, Shaxi, Beijing and finally Shanghai.  I depart from Shanghai tomorrow and head to Germany for a month of travels, but I cannot help but TO think about the past few months and how much this entire experience has molded me into a more rounded person who knows herself much better.

 

My study abroad experience started at the end of February.  I went into the SIT (School of International Training) bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  I thought that because I took some Chinese history at school that I understood China, but I was completely wrong.  The China that is in Yunnan is not the China of Beijing or other large industrial cities.  Yunnan Province, whose largest city is Kunming, has twenty-five different minorities, just under half of China’s total minority count.  During my program, I was introduced to quite a few of these minorities (Bai, Hani, Yi, Miao, Tibetan, Naxi, Dai), but I still can’t fathom how many exist and how complex each and every one of the minorities are.  I learned the most about the Bai ethnic minority because of my Shaxi homestay in a Bai family.  Just AFTER four days living with my new friends, I learned to understand and appreciate so much, from what it takes to make food on a wood fire to grinding grain by hand every day so that they can make a living.  I had another homestay in Kunming for two weeks.  During these two weeks, my language skills improved drastically because I didn’t have the crutch of a teacher to call on when I didn’t know a word or two.  The main thing I learned from my Kunming family is how hard both parents work to have the life they currently live and how important education is to both parents so that my little didi could go to college and eventually get a good job.  I saw how hard my homestay mom worked everyday, and how tired she would get at the end of the day, but all she and other people her age could say was how much better today was better than twenty years ago.  People in Shaxi and Kunming feel the important of different values have different things in life that are important.  In Kunming, my parents thought that education, friends and things were some of the most important values in life, but in Shaxi, my family didn’t care about material possessions.  In addition, education did not have the same impact on a small rural community that it has on a large city with a family who can afford to pay for high school and eventually college.  Family was the most important thing to my homestay parents and family in Shaxi.  Family was always there for you if you needed it.  If you were sick, it was family who had to take your place in the fields, and they did it willingly and with love.  There is a saying in the city that I heard: A good friend/neighbor is better than a distant relative.  In the city, this saying is mostly true, although, it is a good friend that is better than a distant relative.  In the country, just as Shaxi, family is the most important relation you can possibly have.  Because their families are so large, family can sometimes make up the majority of their networking system.  Family has always been extremely important to me, but after meeting my Shaxi family, I think that family should be one of the most important things to me.  Family is stable and forever, while other things may come and go.  Even though my family was in the United States and other places in China these past few months, they were my rock while I was down and struggling, they were my support and guidance when I needed help, and they were there when I needed to share and talk about my many new experiences. 

I learned so much from my homestay experiences, but not nearly as much as I learned from all of my new friends, Chinese and American.  Apparently, every group who goes through the SIT China program has a different character/temperament.  Lu Yuan, our Academic Advisor, told us at our final dinner in Beijing that our group was like no other group, in that because of how diverse we were and of our personal temperaments, we all clicked together to form a great team.  My study abroad group consisted of nineteen American college students, sixteen were juniors and three were sophomores.  We all came from different backgrounds, universities, and parts of the country.  We came from Alaska, Hawaii, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, South Virginia, Georgia, Massachusetts, Vermont, California, New York, and Ohio, and we all went to school in just as diverse of places.  We all had different interests and different ways of thinking that showed me what else was out there.  Together, we went outside of our comfort zones and learned from our wonderful experiences with SIT together.  It was from these eighteen other people, who I now call great friends, that I changed the greatest.  I was introduced to how diverse the United States is itself through these people.  But because of how we lived and worked together for four months, we were all able to support each other and form ties that I don’t think can ever be broken.  Because of these people I love with all my heart, I have learned to trust easily again.  I have learned how I can be a better person because of their example, and I hope I have set the same example for them.  My experience in China would not have been the same if even one of these people were not on the same adventure that I was.  We have learned to love, to trust, to speak Chinese, to dance, to sing, and to live life to its fullest.

 

Through my experiences in China, I know one thing for sure… China is now a part of me.  I will always love its people and the beauty that I have seen while studying abroad.  I know that, one day, I WILL come back to learn and experience even more of Chinese culture and history. 

 

For my study abroad experience as a whole and what SIT taught me, I feel that one quote I saw in the Qatar Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo sums it up perfectly:

 

“Our goal is to do as our ancestors did before us, who believed in the urgency of meeting other civilizations, but not melting into them.  An this is why we believe in the power of education to guide us toward this goal.”

-HH Sheikha Mozah binti Nasser Al Missned

 

On my final day in China, I went to the 2010 Shanghai Expo, and all I could think as I walked around the different countries is how this was the perfect way to end my study abroad experience.  The Expo was the perfect way for me and millions of other people to get glimpses of parts of the world that they will never be able to visit or interact with.  How great of a way to create a better understanding across the world than to show your countries culture, language, geography, and history to the entire world.  How special it was to end my Big Trip by creating a Better World.

 

“We must use time wisely and forever realize that time is always ripe to do right.”

            -Nelson Mandela

 

Tea for Two or more…

Tea has been on my mind quite a bit lately.  I had previously known that tea in China is very famous, but before I started my study-abroad experience in Yunnan Province, I did not know that Yunnan was especially famous for tea.  During this past weekend, I have been to the largest tea market in Kunming twice.  I now know how to perform the Chinese tea ceremony and have purchased all the materials to do this in the states.  I have some new guanxi in teashops who will now give me the friend-discount whenever I want tea.

 

First, some background information on tea. 

Tea is the product of the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the Camellia sinensis plant, which is usually just called the tea plant, bush, or tree.  The name ‘Tea’ is then given to the beverage prepared with cured leaves by combining the leaves with hot or boiling water.  Tea is the second most widely-consumed drink in the world – second only to water.  There are six different kinds of tea: white, yellow, green, oolong, black and pu-er.  White, green, oolong and black teas are the most common.  Every tea is made from the same plant.  The leaves are processed differently after harvesting and are even harvested at different times. 

 

A few facts about the tree plant and growing tea:

  •  The tea plant is an evergreen plant that grows mainly in tropical and sub-tropical areas.
  •  Tea plants require at least 130 cm of rain a year and grow better in acidic soils.
  •  Tea plants grow better on mountainsides at elevations up to 4,900 feet.  The plant grows slower here and is said to acquire better flavors. 
  •  Only the top one to two inches of the mature plant are picked (these buds are called ‘flushes’).  During the growing season, a plant will produce a new flush every seven to ten days. 
  • A tea plant will grow into a tree if left uncultivated.  The cultivated plants are pruned to waste height for picking. 

Preparation and tea culture:

In China, tea is divided into a number of infusions (number of times you steep the leaves).  The first is also used to wash/rinse the tea.  Every infusion thereafter, you can drink the tea.  Depending on the tea, the third through fifth infusion is thought of as the best infusion.  In the Chinese tea ceremony, things are very informal, very different from the Japanese tea ceremony.  There is a lot of casual conversation throughout the entire time.  If I went into a teashop, the owner would invite everyone to sit down.  For pu-er tea, he would first allow us to smell the teacake and tell us exactly what we are about to try.  Then he would put between ten and twenty grams of the teacake into a clay pot.  He would pour boiling water into the pot, put the lid on, and pour the boiling water on the outside of the pot as well in order to make sure the pot is thoroughly warmed.  He lets the tea steep for about thirty seconds, and then pours the tea into a glass pot.  Sometimes a strainer is put on the top of the glass pot so that no tea-leaves go into the glass pot.  From the glass pot, the tea is poured into cups.  There is one cup for every person at the table including the person serving the tea.  This is still the first steep, so the tea from the glasses is poured out onto the table, which usually has a draining mechanism that leads to a bucket under the table.  This first steep is also used to wash the cups and warm them up.   Sometimes the tea from the cups is poured onto the top of the clay pot to keep it warm or on a little clay animal that is on the tea table.  There are nine types of animals that can be on this table.  They all have different stories behind them, but each of them is one of the nine sons of the traditional Chinese dragon.  After the tea is poured out of the cups, the process starts again by adding boiling water to the clay pot.  This steep, people can start drinking their tea.  The person performing the tea ceremony starts by serving a person directly next to them and goes around the table so that he/she is served last.  It is always polite to serve yourself last.  If you are in a teashop, instead of verbally saying thank you, so that the person serving you doesn’t have to say you’re welcome every time he/she pours you tea, you can tap your index finger and middle finger twice.  This gesture means thank you.  If you would like more tea, tap a closed fist on the table, and you will be served more tea, although I have never had to ask for more tea because the laoban always notices when you have finished your glass.

  • Preparing Black Tea:  The water should be added near boiling point, and the temperature of the water has a large effect on the final flavor.  Black teas are usually steeped for about four minutes.  Steeping longer can result in extremely bitter tasting tea.   Black tea can be steeped about three to four times.
  • Green Tea:  The water for green tea should not be boiling but between 176 and 185 degrees Fahrenheit.  The higher the quality of tea, the lower the temperature.  Hotter water would burn the green tea leaves and produce a bitter taste.   Green tea can be steeped about four to six times.
  • Oolong Tea:  Water used to brew oolong tea should be between 194 and 212 degrees Fahrenheit.  Yixing clay teapots should be used to make oolong tea.  These pots are usually red or brown in color and are some of the most famous types of teapots in China.  They are typically unglazed.  They are prized because the unglazed surface absorbs flavors of the beverage, creating a more complex flavor.  Oolong tea can be steeped three to fives times.
  • Pu-er Tea:  This tea requires boiling water.  The first steep is always used to rinse the tea from dust, which accumulates during the aging process.  Allow the tea to steep for only about thirty seconds and pu-er tea can be steeped up to thirty different times.

Tea bags

It was in 1907 that tea bags were invented, but it was not until the 1950’s that the tea bag became a success.  Tea bags are easy to use and very convenient, which makes their use popular today.  Many people think tea bags are an inferior way to drink tea for many reasons.  Many people can taste the paper used for the bags.  The tea quality is not as good.    The small bag size does not allow leaves to diffuse and steep properly.  Breaking up the leaves extracts flavorful oils.  Loose teas are likely to be in larger pieces, so the flavor will not be lost as quickly, unlike in a tea bag, which uses leaves that are broken into small pieces.

 

Loose Tea

In China, unless you go to an import store, you cannot purchase tea bags.  Instead, most people go to a teashop and buy loose leaf tea.  Loose leaf tea allows for greater flexibility.  The consumer can produce weaker or stronger tea as desired.  Strainers, tea presses, filtered teapots, and infusion bags are widely available in China so that the person does not risk drinking the actual leaves, but many people simply leave the tea leaves in the glass and block them from getting into their mouth with their tongue.  Currently, I own an insulated mug that has a strainer that can snap into the top so that this is not a problem, and these types of mugs are widely available.  I also have a filtered teapot so that I can make pu-er tea easily in my room.  Traditionally, a gaiwan would be used to drink tea.  This is a three-piece lidded teacup.  The lid can be tilted to keep the leaves in the cup while pouring the tea into a different cup you can drink from.

 

Yunnan and pu-er tea:

Yunnan is famous for the growing and production of pu-er tea.  Pu-er tea plays an important role in history.  In the past pu-er was given by the people of Yunnan to the Chinese emperor as homage.  Pu-er is a compressed and fermented tea, so it did not matter how long it took to reach the emperor because the better pu-er teas are between ten and thirty years old.  Another significant role pu-er tea played is in the Ancient tea and horse caravan trade route or the 茶馬古道 (chámǎ gǔdaò).  This route went from southern Yunnan into Tibet.  The pu-er teacakes were loaded onto mules and horses and transported into Tibet.  The Tibetan diet consists of mainly Yak products.  This is a lot of fat.  Because of the altitude in Tibet, they are unable to grow a wide variety of plants so they rely on the Yak for a lot f their food as well as a lot of starchy foods.  Pu-er tea has many health benefits including helping your digestive system, so pu-er tea to the Tibetan population was very important and is still extremely important.  In the past, the teacakes were so important, that they were often used as currency. 

 

Pu-er can also be made into loose-leaf tea, but is mostly in the form of teacakes.  The classic shape is called the bird’s nest.  This is round with a slight indentation in the center of the cake on one side.  The normal sizes of this kind of cake are about eight to ten inches in diameter.  Pu-er can also be compressed into bricks, mushrooms, and almost any other style, but the more elaborate ones are only used for decoration, not for consumption.

 

There are two types of pu-er tea: (shēngchá) and (shúchá).  Sheng tea is the raw pu-er tea.  This uses a natural fermentation process.  This is also referred to as green pu-er because it is lighter in color.  Shu tea is the cooked pu-er tea.  It is cooked to imitate the aging process.  Shu tea is usually less expensive and younger than raw pu-er cakes.  Green pu-er leaves can also be sold in loose tea form, but it not as valuable as the aged pu-er.  A decent pu-er cake can be purchased for between 60 and 150 yuan.  Although a teacake that is older than four years and was produced in a good region in a good batch can be sold for over 400 yuan. 

As I mentioned before, Yunnan produces the majority of pu-er tea.  Pu-er is produced in almost every county and prefecture in this province, but the most famous region that produces pu-er are known as the Six Famous Tea Mountains in Xishuangbanna.  Tea is one of the main products for the Xishuangbanna region.  Xishuangbanna is located on the southern most border of China. 

Currently, small tickets are imbedded into the cake during pressing that proves the authenticity of the tea.  The ticket usually shows the tea manufacturer and the year it was made.  This is done to prevent counterfeiting.

Pu-er tea can be aged to improve its flavor.  In order to age a teacake, the conditions must be ideal.  Regular airflow through the area so that you do not get a stale smelling aged tea is recommended.  Do not wrap the tea in plastic because that will eventually stop the aging process.  Tea stored in the presence of strong odors will eventually acquire them.  The higher the humidity, the faster the tea will age.  Keep the tea out of the way of water so that mold will not start growing on the tea.  60-85% humidity is recommended to age pu-er.  Sunlight dries the tea prematurely and will often make the tea bitter.  High temperatures are not recommended because undesirable flavors could develop, but low temperatures would slow down the aging process drastically. 

 

A good pu-er teacake is sometimes compared to a good bottle of wine.  Depending on the cake or bottle, the older the better.

 

I look forward to enjoying tea with you soon.

 

On a personal note, what do I miss?

I’ve been gone for almost four months now and I’m starting to miss a lot of things.  

  • I miss living in a “normal,” stable place for an extended period of time.
  • I miss American food, although I do not miss how expensive American food is.  
  • I miss having a kitchen to cook in.
  • I miss being able to pick up a phone and call people without worrying about a 13 hour time difference.
  • I miss having a library to study in.
  • I miss having internet where I live, so I have to go to cafes to get internet.
  • I miss not having to peel an apple in order to eat it.
  • I miss drinking tap water.
  • I miss my grandma’s cooking.
  • I miss seeing friends and family.
  • I miss eating salads.
  • I miss being able to flush toilet paper.
  • I miss an actual shower.
  • I miss feeling “American clean.”
  • I miss having smoke-free and pollution-free air to breathe.

Lately, in Kunming, while I’m doing language class, I study Chinese for about four hours a night. I have one-on-one classes with the same two teachers as before.  Other than class, everything is extremely relaxing.  I have found a lot of really delicious and cheap places to eat near the Yunnan Mingzu Daxue campus.  During classes, I cover a chapter a day, which is about 50 to 60 words a day, which means a little over 100 characters a day.  It’s not the easiest thing to memorize characters in one night so I can do well on the dictations I have in class.  I have been finding lots of cheap DVDs, and I have been getting some shopping out of the way before my mom arrives in Kunming six days from now.  

 

I have less than a month left in China, and I just want to experience as much as I can after I finish my intensive language class in one week.

 

Time goes so quickly…

Zhongdian #2

That Monday was one of the best days I’ve had in China.  The night before in Bhashkar’s during a little dance party Dakpa hosted; he invited me, Zeben and David to join him visiting a temple the next day.  I thought that would be it, and initially, I was going to go back to Kunming that night.  I thought I would have time to catch a sleeper bus back later that night.  But instead of spending just the morning at a temple, Dakpa took us all around Zhongdian and the surrounding areas, including his village, his house, his ecotourism lodge in a village, and a Tibetan Buddhist Temple.

 

The temple we went to is about an hour’s car ride outside of Zhongdian, half of it on dirt roads.  It is on the top of a mountain, a holy mountain.  On the stairs up, there are prayer-wheels that people individually spin as they walk past.  There is an interesting story about our animal companion to this temple.  It is a small goat that was in the trunk of Dakpa’s jeep.  One of Dakpa’s friends who came with us to the temple found this goat while she was driving from Kunming to Zhongdian.  It was in an area where it was not really suitable for a goat to live.  So she brought him to Zhongdian and gave him to Dakpa to give to a farmer.  But Dakpa had a better idea.  This temple has about 30 goats living on the mountain and within the area.  Once they are brought to the temple, the goats are freed.  So Dakpa brought our cute little companion to the temple to free him.  Once you get past the goats, there are two sections to this temple.  The first is a very normal looking area with a few large statues of the Buddha.  The second is where the one permanent monk resident lives and works.  It is lit only by candlelight.  After entering the two sections of the temple, people walk around the temple to hang the prayers flags that are prayed on inside the temple.  I asked the Master at the Cultural Center what the prayer flags meant to Tibetan Buddhism, and he told me that it has nothing to do with Tibetan Buddhism, but with local spirits and deities.  The mountain gods apparently appreciated the prayer flags, so they appeased this god’s needs and anger by hanging the flags.  Tibetans have continued to hang prayer flags.  Around this temple, all the eye could see was very colorful prayer flags.  It was very peaceful.

 

After leaving the temple Dakpa took us to lunch and then brought us to his ecotourism lodge in a village about 30 minutes from Zhongdian.  The local villagers are working to build this very large, Tibetan-style house.  No nails, screws, or any type of binding method used to build western style houses are used to build a Tibetan house .  They use interlocking beams to build the frame.  The outside walls are made of compressed dirt, and the beams of the second floor were at least a foot diameter.  It is a big square with four main posts in the middle.  Beams lock into each for the roof.  The villagers have been working on this house for a little less than a month and already they have all of the outer walls built, and the main supports and second floor too. 

 

The plan Dakpa has for this center is to promote ecotourism around Zhongdian.  This place will be a lodge that tourists can stay in and experience Tibetan village life.  After this lodge is completed, he wants to build another lodge a few hours hike away.  This next lodge will be in the mountains so that the tourists can get a natural view of this area as well as a view of Tibetan village life. 

 

This is the start of ecotourism in Zhongdian.

Zhongdian #1

It’s a sweltering 80 degrees and humid in Kunming today.  As I understand, by the lunar calendar, today is the second day of summer.  It is time to pull out summer clothes, except for  in Zhongdian.  The weather in, as I’ve recently experienced over a long weekend of visiting friends, is very temperamental.

 

My weekend in Zhongdian started last Friday night by almost missing my 6:30 PM bus to Zhongdian because I couldn’t find a taxi until about five minutes to six.  And the only reason I found this taxi was because my Chinese friend Federico happened upon me trying to wave one down, went up to a taxi with a person in it and asked if he could take me to the West Bus Station.  Luckily, this nice taxi driver said yes to drive me half an hour right at shift change.  It was very stressful, but I made it on the bus and started a thirteen hour bus ride northwest to Zhongdian.

 

Saturday, the only major thing I did was hang out with my friends who I hadn’t seen for a week: Zeben, Erin, and David.  It is so interesting to hear what everyone else is doing with their independent study project’s.  Zeben is studying conservation and tourism in national parks in China, focussing on a park near Zhongdian named Pudacuo. Erin is studying Tangka Painting at the Tibetan Tangka Academy.  She is studying under the tutelage of the Tibetan Lama and Tangka Master.  David who was recently at a monastery, decided to study under the Tibetan Lama because the monks and Lamas at the monastery do not take meditation seriously.  Right now, Erin and David have a very intense class schedule.  The Tangka Academy is quite interesting in that for local Tibetans, who do not come from much means, the government funds their learning Tangka Painting, English, Mandarin, and the Tibetan Language.  Currently, there are about fifteen students at the center, ages ranging from 14 to 24 years old.  

 

Sunday, we all decided to rent bikes and ride out to  Napa Lake.  We had heard that it was about one hour one way.  The scenes were breathtaking: snow-capped mountains, forest covered hills, yaks, pigs, black necked cranes, and traditional Tibetan Villages. Instead of one hour one way, it was about five and a half hours total, up and down mountains and dirt paths.  During this bike ride, it was one of the warmest days in Zhongdian, about 70 degrees with no clouds.  I got the worst sunburn I think I have ever had on my arms, and even five days later, my shoulders still hurt as much as they did Sunday.  

 

Rural homestay with interesting people & places

Well, over a week into my Northwestern Yunnan Field-Trip, and I’m stuck in the hotel.  Why, you ask?  I never knew I could be so affected by altitude sickness.  Currently, I am in Zhongdian, otherwise known as Shangri-la, which is well above 3,000 meters.  Altitude sickness is when your body takes a little while adjusting to the higher altitude.  Also, when you already have a cold, altitude sickness only makes it worse.  The causes are not well known; in addition, the rate of ascent, altitude attained, amount of physical activity at higher altitude, as well as individual susceptibility are contributing factors to high altitude illness.  Symptoms start six to eight hours after ascent, and it can take up to two to three days to gets over the symptoms.  Problems I had, up until an hour ago, headache, lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, light-headedness, shortness of breath, and drowsiness. 

 

So that is basically what I’m dealing while writing this long overdue blog.

 

My trip started with a long bus ride to Weishan County, which is a Yi and Hui Autonomous County.  Weishan City was actually the first capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom until it was moved to the ancient city of Dali.  This was formed during the Tang Dynasty. The Nanzhao Kingdom is made up of many ethnic and linguistic groups and has over a 300-year history that started in Weishan City.  King Xinuluo founded this Kingdom in Weishan.  Weishan served as the capital for 94 years until it was moved to Dali.  Weishan is an old source of Dali culture.  Currently, Weishan has a population of 300,000 people with 23 different Nationalities.  Yi and Hui ethnic minorities make up the majority of the population.  In order to become an Autonomous Region in China there are certain requirements.  For a one ethnic minority Autonomous Region, 40% of the population has to be one minority.  For a two minority Autonomous Region, 55% of the population has to be a combination of two minorities.  Weishan is a place with a long history, splendid variety of culture, harmonious ethnic relations, and awe-inspiring scenic beauty.

 

After a very long, windy bus ride, we arrive at Weibaoshan National Nature Preserve.  There are about twenty-five Daoist temples on this one mountain.  Weibaoshan is one of the most famous Daoist sacred mountains in China.  Daoism is a religion where a goal is to be in sync with nature and mother earth.  About half an hour hike up the mountain is the temple where I met a female Daoist monk.  This woman has devoted her whole life to being a monk.  She has been trained in pure Daoist-style wall hangings. She sells these paintings in order to bring some income to the temple and herself.  This is one of the only ways for temples to make money because of the Chinese government’s three self rules (self-propagating, self-administrating, and self-supporting).  Weibaoshan is also known as the Mighty Bird Pass, which is considered to be one of the best places in the world for migratory bird watching.

 

Up on a holy mountain at night, no light pollution or excess noise, it was the most beautiful, peaceful experience I’ve had in a while.  I could see the big dipper so clearly over the tree line, that it was wonderful.  A few friends of mine slept outside under the stars.  The sky that night was crystal clear and breathtaking.

 

Shaxi Village is a cluster of ten to fifteen villages in a valley in Jianchuan County.  This village has great historical significance because it was a significant trading stop on the ancient tea and horse caravan road and the southern silk road.  It was by these two roads that Buddhism was brought from India, which is shown by the uniquely Indian influenced Buddhist and Nanzhao kingdom grottoes, statues and temples of nearby Shibaoshan.  The Southern Silk Road Trade Route linked Burma to Yunnan and Yunnan to Tibet.  Shaxi has one of the largest and most well preserved markets on this trade route.  Shaxi is also famous for its woodcarvings.  You can see this clearly in the old style Bai architecture. 

 

Shaxi Village is currently going through a multi-phased initiative in cultural heritage conservation and sustainable development between the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich and the People’s Government of Jianchuan County.  It is called the Shaxi Rehabilitation Project.  The Rehabilitation Project seeks to enhance infrastructure, modernize facilities, and protect the environment. 

 

Shaxi was where I had a rural homestay.  My house was very close to the old market square by the big tree in the center of town.  My homestay family are rice farmers.  The house-complex I lived in was quite large, with at least five bedrooms, a center courtyard, a kitchen with no running water, a shower room, and then an area to keep the animals (pigs, rabbits, goats, and roosters).  My two parents were the heads of the household.  They had two sons.  One of them lived in the same house and is unmarried, and the other one is married and is a truck driver.  His wife lives with his parents and they have a one and a half year old daughter, who is the center of attention in this house.  During the day the men are not generally home, but the women stay and take care of the house and the children.  Since Shaxi is a Bai village, the entire family is of the Bai ethnic minority. 

 

From everything that I saw in Shaxi village and the surrounding areas, Shaxi is pretty well off for a rural setting.  The Shaxi Rehabilitation Project has encouraged tourism in this little town, which has given a little more income to the surrounding areas.  People in the old town have been encouraged to keep guest rooms in order to accommodate the influx of tourists in the area.  Most villagers view tourism as a good thing instead of viewing tourism as exploiting the local culture.

 

Shibaoshan is one of the mountains next to Shaxi Village.  With my SIT group, we stayed overnight at one of the Buddhist temples.  These mountains are inhabited by thousands of monkeys, who were very friendly.  During the day, after hiking up to the top of the mountain with some friends, we went back to the Buddhist dorm complex where we stayed that night.  Huang Laoshi, one of the SIT professors, saw a few monkeys on the roof and got some peanuts to give them.  Within minutes about twenty monkeys, some with little babies clutching to their bellies, came into the center courtyard begging for more food.  They fought with each other, challenged each other, and got really friendly with any human who had food.  The interesting thing about these monkeys is that they knew when you were scared of them.  They could sense fear.

 

Another funny story is that when my friends and I were standing in front of the dorm complex, Sara was holding a bottle of Pepsi very loosely in her hands.  One of the medium sized male monkeys sneaked up on her, grabbed her bottle, and ran to a ledge.  We spent about twenty minutes sitting there watching this monkey try to open it.  He would tilt the bottle around and try to open whichever end of the bottle that had the liquid in it.  The bottle had the attention of every monkey in the area, and several tried to steal it from the monkey who had it.  In order to encourage the monkey with the bottle, Jeff tried showing him how to open a bottle.  The monkey got very annoyed at Jeff and actually charged at him (Hint: don’t look the monkeys in the eyes, they don’t like it!).  Someone had the bright idea to let the monkeys try some of the Pepsi, and they loved it.  The one monkey who originally had the bottle eventually pierced it with his huge canines, but failed at drinking any of the liquid.  The monkeys were the highlight of the of Shibaoshan. 

Another site on Shibaoshan are the Shiling grottoes.  These are some of the most historically significant grottoes in Southwestern China.  They were built during the Nanzhao Kingdom between 700 and 1000 AD.  They are some of the first Buddhist images in China that actually have a strikingly Chinese/South Asian look about them instead of the traditional Indian style.  During the Cultural Revolution, a political leader saved these grottoes from destruction with military friends in high places who stopped the students from destroying this important piece of traditional Chinese history.  One of the statues in the area is of a female genitalia that looks remarkably like Shiva’s linga-yoni.  Women still pour oil onto this statue to pray for pregnancy.

 

 

Zhongdian County is located in Deqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture and has a population of only about 130,000 people.  Tibetans primarily inhabit it because it borders Tibet.  It was renamed Shangri-La in 2001 after the James Hilton novel ‘Lost Horizons’ 1933 Shangri-La.  This was an attempt to promote tourism, and it worked.  This area therefore has three names: Zhongdian is the Chinese name, Shangri-La is the official name to promote tourism, and Gyalthang is the Tibetan name.

 

In Zhongdian, even though I was sick the entire time, I did meet a few people of note: Master Lobsang Khedup and Dakpa Kelden.  Dakpa is the Jack-of-all-Trades in Zhongdian.  He owns two restaurants, one travel agency, and also runs the Shangri-La Association of Cultural Preservation and the Tibetan Thangka Academy.  Dakpa is a Tibetan who spent a great deal of time in India and a few months in the United States.  He was the most relaxed, easy going, generous man I have ever met.  His name in Tibetan means the roar of a tiger or famous.  And both of the meanings suit him.  I really wish I had a better way of explaining how much fun he made us have, and the way he would dance a little dance and say Dakpa Dakpa Dakpa… but Dakpa is the kind of person you have to see to believe. 

Master Lobsang Khedup is a Tibetan born in Dongwan village near Zhongdian.  He is the senior Thangka Academy instructor.  Thangka is a kind of Buddhist painting, and this Master is a very talented painter.  He began to study Thangka painting at the age of seven under his first master.  At the age of fourteen, he traveled to a Buddhist Monastery in Southern India for further religion and painting study.  He has studied oil painting, Thangka painting, Chinese-style painting, and Indian Kangra painting in addition to studying Buddhism because he has become a monk. Master Lobsang Khedup allied himself with Dakpa, an old friend, in 2006 and they formed the Tibetan Thangka Academy.  Their goal is to preserve the Tibetan Culture of the Zhongdian region.

Lijiang is a prefecture-level city with just over a million people.  Lijiang’s Old Town is located in Lijiang City and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This town has over 800 years of history and was once a stop on the ancient Tea and Horse Road.  Lijiang’s Old Town is well known for its ordered walkways, waterways, and bridges.  Lijiang’s largest ethnic minority is the Naxi people (pronounced Na-khi).  In old town it is required that all the storekeepers where ethnic Naxi dress.  Over the last few hundred years, the Naxi population has remained around 300,000 people.  Naxi culture is called Dongba culture after their religion.  Dongba script is one of the world’s most well preserved pictographic writing systems. 

 

While in Lijiang, we met a blind religious Dongba, or fortuneteller.  This Dongba told three fortunes: mine, Sara’s, and Huang Laoshi’s.  He told me and Sara about marriage in general.  He told Sara that she would marry her third boyfriend.  He told me that I would only be happily married after the age of thirty.  And he told Huang Laoshi that within a year she would have a baby girl.  Lu Yuan, my Academic Director with SIT, told us all that this Dongba has never been wrong in his predictions.  Interesting to think about…

 

Dali Ancient City is an ancient Bai minority city and the old capital of the Nanzhao Kingdom.  It is next to Erhai Lake and Cangshan Mountain.  Dali is also on the Ancient Tea and Horse Trade Route.  Dali is the city that the Mongolians invaded and brought Yunnan Province into Chinese Territory.  Today, the government does not allow modern buildings to be built inside the walls of ancient Dali.  Instead there is a modern city right next to Dali called Xiaguan. 

 

Kunming homestay ramblings – pics to follow…

Soon I will upload pictures from the first two weeks of April living with a lovely Chinese homestay family in Kunming.  I have a Chinese mom, dad, and little brother.  My mother is an accountant at a company that makes and sells signs, such as bus stop signs, street signs, etc. My father is the head of the Anthropology department at Yunnan Mingzu Daxue, so he’s perfect for me, right?  He was extremely busy during my time here, so I did not get to know him as well as I wanted to.  He did, however, inspire me, even more than I already am, to learn Chinese so that I can read the book he wrote on the Hani Chinese ethnic minority.  He gave me a copy and actually signed it for me! 

 

My little brother, who I just call didi (and he calls me jiejie.  how cute is that?) is 14 years old and I think is in eighth grade.  His English is pretty good; however, my mom’s English is the cutest in this house.  She has been trying to learn English for only a year.  During the first week of my stay, she would write down sentences with new vocabulary in Chinese and in English.  Then after dinner, she would sit me down and ask if she could say the English sentence that way.  It was adorable.  During my stay, we mostly speak in Chinese, apart from a few words (well, not a few) that I don’t know yet.  But in that case, she will either ask didi what the word is in English, or I’ll look the word up.  Either way, my conversational Chinese improved drastically. 

 

My parents’ house is not the average Chinese style or sized house.  And by house, I really mean an apartment.  This is a penthouse apartment with two floors.  It has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, two living rooms, an American-size dining room, a large kitchen, a computer room, and a beautiful rooftop terrace, which currently overlooks the beautiful Kunming skyline of construction.  Construction aside, the rooftop terrace is beautiful and relaxing.  I was actually allowed to have a few friends over to celebrate Easter by decorating eggs!  And we had that little party on the rooftop terrace.  It was a lot of fun.

I will write more when I have time on the bus trip to Dali, Lijiang, and Zhongdian in the next two weeks, but for now, I do not want to abuse the privelege of using my didi’s computer.  I’ll be posting a lot more when I get back from two weeks of travelling, and if I get internet access during that time, I will be sure to send a short post about what I’m doing!

Love to all,

Cassie