Sunday, September 29, 2013


We went to Chengdu with the almost express purpose of going to see the pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.  We used Chengdu as a rest stop between Kunming and our Climb of Emeishan (post to come...).  Chengdu is the heart of the Sichuan province in China so we had plenty of spicy dishes including Kung Po Chicken.  The City of Chengdu was fine (though quite smoggy) but not really worth a whole blog post. The pandas, on the other hand, were FABULOUS!!!  So, instead of boring you with silly words and facts, we're just going to show you all our favorite pandas (including a video, and some BABIES!):

See more from this adorable guy in the video at the bottom!

These guys used to live in San Diego (just like us!). Now they just drool away their days happily in China :)

Nope, that's not a fuzzy's a baby panda!!

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Kunming: A Chinese Delight (even with the potential for a knife fight!)

After our month in Vietnam, we arrived to the cool, spring air of Kunming and fell in love. For me, this is the first city we've been to on this trip where I could consider staying a while (don't worry, family, we're coming home!). With perpetually blue skies, clean air, and spring weather (Kunming is known as the City of Eternal Spring), it is an absolute delight to meander along the wide, uncluttered sidewalks, through the parks and down the old alleys. We had heard (and found to be true) that there is almost zero english spoken in Kunming (it's not a very popular tourist destination for westerners) but the people we met were overwhelmingly friendly and willing to help us, so the language barrier really wasn't a problem.

The very beautiful Yuantong Temple
On arrival to our first hotel, the Guests Garden Hostel, we were presented with the interesting problem that the hotel sign was not in english, and the hotel was accessed up a staircase through the back of a little grocery. Once we sorted that out, the receptionist said that our bathroom would have a "Chinese Toilet"..."will that be ok?" To which Cory so helpfully responded "do you think we came to China to sit down?!" And sit down we would not! We had found ourselves with our first private squat toilet! And for an extra challenge (for a person as generally clumsy as me), the shower head was situated over the toilet, so while it was lovely that the toilet was always very clean, there was a challenge not to fall right in while showering.

For breakfast each morning, we set out to find some noodles. The traditional fare of the city is a dish called Across the Bridge Noodles, a multi-layered bowl of noodles, broth, various meats and vegetables. Our first time out for the noodles, we arrived the restaurant, purchased the first two items on the menu (and no, we weren't quite sure what they were), went to the window with our ticket to pick up our noodles, like everyone else, and were told "no." No explanation, no gesturing towards a different window. Just "no." Huh. Someone indicated that we should sit, so we did. Someone else took our ticket to presumably sort it out for us. And then we lost them. So now we had no food, and no ticket showing that we had paid for food (though I'm sure the cashier would have remembered two bumbling, big, white people). Eventually, some food showed up, our friendly local table neighbors showed us what to do, and we had a huge (and quite yummy) noodle meal for under $3 total!

Caligraphy in Green Lake Park
We also met up with our new friends Helena and Dave to have some drinks at Moondogs, a bar with a generally nice mix of locals and expats. On this particular occasion, we narrowly avoided a knife fight, as recounted by Helena and Dave (imagine this section with a fabulous British accent, told by a guy who looks nothing like Jason Statham and a lady that looks just as posh as can be!):

Cory and Molly had recommended Moondog, a bar they’d enjoyed on their previous visit to Kunming, and it seemed an ideal place to catch up on talk of travelling, politics and favourite episodes of Fawlty Towers. Even more ideal (for me at least) was that it had one of the best selections of whisky this side of the Hebrides being generously poured by the Scottish friend of the owner who was standing in for the night behind the bar.

We hadn’t been there long when it became clear that a lone Japanese man at the bar was surreptitiously photographing us. This is not unusual in China (and I often wonder what exactly people do with the photographs of laowei that they collect on their travels. But that is a digression for another time).

The curious Japanese man finally plucked up the courage to come over and speak to us, and, dispensing with the more customary greeting, introduced himself with a question: “Jason?”. When he was met with bemused stares, our starry eyed friend elaborated: “Jason Statham?”

More bemused stares.

As a teacher, my students over the years have conferred upon me my fair share of unlikely lookalikes. The comparisons have ranged from Neil Patrick Harris (the student clearly trying to get an A) to Quentin Tarantino (trying to convince me that I should let them watch Pulp Fiction in class). In the end though most have tended to settle on Chicken Little.

It’s a long time since I last watched Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but I don’t recall at any point did I experience that moment where I felt that I was looking into a mirror and, despite showing him pictures of the actual Jason Statham, we could not convince him otherwise. Thus ensued about two hours of circular conversation punctuated by the happy consolation that he proceeded to buy drinks for his hero for most of the night.

Action Star Jason Statham
Dave and his new best friend

Good whisky, great company and an adoring new Japanese friend: this was quickly turning into one of the best nights of the trip so far.

As inevitably happens when you’re drinking Scottish sized drams, I needed to use the facilities. I stood up and, in a cosy, whisky induced fug, headed to the back of the bar where the sole toilet was located.

Outside the toilet were two locals, both worse-for-wear. One a gentleman of advanced years, struggling to hold himself up; the other younger and blackshirted. They were arguing. With all the gesticulations and posturing (mainly from Blackshirt) I could deduce that someone had broken some form of sacred bathroom etiquette. Not speaking any Chinese at all, and, quite frankly, needing to go pretty desperately, I tried to diffuse the situation. It didn’t help.

The three of us were at an impasse. Taking the foreign advantage, I went.

Relieved, I came out of the toilet (category 2 on Molly’s scale) to find the argument seemed to have run its course.

I returned to our table and our evening continued. Perhaps another half an hour or so passed and the seemingly insignificant incident was forgotten until, out of the blue, our table was surrounded by half a dozen men in black shirts and sunglasses who had been called up to deal with the ‘situation’. Worried that we’d unwittingly found ourselves in the hangout of the local mafia, I did exactly what anyone else would have done. I ran. With Corey and Molly close behind.

Meanwhile Helena, my lovely wife, was still sitting at the table we’d quickly evacuated, bravely holding on to our table. After all the bar was rather busy.

Fortunately the bar owner and a few of the regulars defused the situation and all speedily returned to normal. A little later, the affable Dutch owner of the bar casually told us that this sort of thing was a semi-regular occurrence and they have to be careful because occasionally some of the locals carry knives.

Presumably just in case someone cuts in front of them in the toilet queue.

Spots we loved in Kunming:
At Yuantong Temple
- Yuantong Temple: a beautiful temple built in the 9th century. We have seen some temples this trip (we're getting a little templed out to be honest) but this one was unusual and delightful. And that's aside from it's very reasonable price tag of 6 RMB (about $1 US). The central temple is in a moat of water, with strings of prayer flags out to the other courtyard buildings. And don't miss the high-fiving dragons in the hall directly behind the central temple!

- Yun Craft Workshop: there is a local arts and crafts shop located in an old Chinese house on a walking street behind a shopping mall downtown, just around the corner from the Flower and Bird Market (the street, of a name we don't know, is flanked by Dairy Queen's on both ends). The house is divided such that each room has crafts by a different ethnic minority of Yunnan, and is filled with textiles, jewelry, tea sets, and food delicacies. Upon arrival, we were given a somewhat-english-speaking tour guide to take us around the house and tell us about the different minorities and their traditional crafts. We highly recommend finding this spot!!

- Green Lake Park (Cuihu Lake): A beautiful (and free!) lake to meander around and through, with groups of locals singing and playing music, children running and learning to rollerblade, men practicing calligraphy on the ground with water, and groups dancing and practicing tai chi. Just perfect!

Cute bunnies at the Flower and Bird Market
- Moondog: (138-5 Wacang Nan Lu, Kunming) Great expat/local bar (despite the occasional knife fight!)

Tips for your trip to Kunming:
- To get an expat spin on the town (local and current events, forums, restaurant recommendations) check out
- We stayed in two different hotels, but would recommend the Fairyland Hotel Jingxing (No. 15-16 East Shifu St, Kunming). Yes, the bathroom was a, and the breakfast consisted of a bowl of spicy noodles with weird pickled vegetables, but the location was great and the bed was super comfy.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Musings on the Night Train: China Edition

The picture of train travel in China
** Note: This post may be more negative than you're expecting, as it describes a terrible experience we had! We hope that in the context of our other posts, you'll read this as an isolated incident about an individual family, not our perspective and experience with most of the people across China. We share it anyway because we think it's pretty funny in retrospect! And on to the story...

Cory and I are on a 19 hour train from Kunming to Chengdu, and boy are we having a cultural experience! We're only 5 hours into the trip, but if I don't think of this as a homestay in a very small house with a typical Chinese family, I will scream. So, think zen "this is a cultural experience" thoughts...

We're in a 4-bed cabin, and it's not our first time. Generally, there seems to be a mutual respect between your new neighbors, as you all have to be in this very small boat for the next 20 hours. But not this time!

Our cabin mates are a family of three: a mom and dad about our age and their 2 year old boy. He's quite cute, but the parents seem like everything that's wrong with the one child policy. When they got on the train, the little boy sat quietly while the mom took 20 minutes (seriously, a full 20 minutes!) to get arranged. Toys, washcloths, multiple bottles, blankets, sweaters, wet wipes, etc all came out of their suitcase (yeah, not a diaper bag, a rolling suitcase, like you would vacation with for a week), and onto the upper bunk. And since that moment, mom has not sat still or shut up. Every peep from the child (and he's not actually a bad 2 year old) is met with full volume (or higher) chatter from mom and dad. In between the chatter, she points at Cory and me and talks to baby about us. I read somewhere that it's rude to point in China. Apparently one needn't heed that warning!

Then out came dinner. Bowl of noodles comes out, travel chopsticks out, washcloths prepped, water in bowl, baby being fed. Baby is not particularly into eating the noodles, but don't worry, mom and dad will just chatter at him simultaneously until he finally gives in. Eventually, dinner has been eaten and I'm thinking maybe it's time to settle down just a smidge. But no, dad is winding up a toy to entertain baby (who I'm pretty sure is ok just sitting quietly at this point). Don't worry, that wind up toy definitely isn't a plastic monkey banging on a plastic drum. Oh wait, it is!!

Now baby has found a new fun game called "let's balance my bottle on the seat back and hit the wall (on the otherside of which a nice elderly lady is trying to sleep) so it falls down." I'm sure you're thinking mom and dad put a stop to this, because who needs a child hitting the wall repeatedly in an enclosed space? Nope! They demonstrated how to hit the wall so hard the bottle falls off and hits Cory instead. 

Time for us to settle into a nice, family friendly episode of Band of Brothers, and to suppress every bone in my body that really wants to join in the cultural experience and play the heartwarming WWII miniseries on the speakers. But instead, we'll go ahead and use our headphones.

Ooh, it's finally time to put Junior to bed. I know I'm not a parent, but I'm pretty sure if you include incessant full volume chatter, that kid's not going to sleep without a fight. And fight he did! He's the kind of kid that goes full limp to pair with his alligator tears, so he comes across as a fish out of Chinese wet market water. 

But finally, he's asleep. Thank god we have some quiet!! Oh, never mind. Now that baby's asleep, mom is back at it. Turns out everything she laid out before on the top bunk is in a separate plastic bag, each of which she now insists on squishing up noisily and shoving into another one. 

On another note, the Chinese have an interesting diapering method we had not seen prior to arriving here. Instead of diapers (on, say, a 2 year old), they just put them in pants with no crotch. I guess it makes it easier when the kid has to go, because you don't have to fuss with all the clothes in their way. But it sure seems a prime method for lots of public accidents. Which may be why I have seen more poop trails on the way to the public toilets than ever before. Maybe those moms just didn't get the message fast enough. But the toileting practices of China are for a whole other blog post... 

Now that we're all happily sleeping in the (finally!) quiet cabin, it's time to get interesting again! At midnight, baby wakes up screaming. Not screaming like "I'm disoriented and scared! Where's my mom?" It was more like "I'm a spoiled baby who gets paid attention to all the time and I want attention NOW!" Mom chatters at him for a while to no avail, until Cory rolls over and pleads with him to go to sleep. So he does. Excellent. Fast forward to 3am when the screaming starts again. Cory asks mom to take him into the hall if he insists on screaming, which she has no intention of doing. So in a move I'm equally proud of (and not so much), I sit up in bed and scream at the top of my lungs. And the scream is met with dead silence by baby. Luckily, the rest of the night passed quietly, until mom wakes baby up at 8am so she can spend the next 4 hours fussing over him. 

We lasted 4 more hours with gritted teeth while mom chattered away and baby banged metal pans together, until finally baby had a full on temper tantrum, mom insisted the cabin door be left open (presumably so everyone on the train could enjoy her child's screaming) and I lost it. Dad spoke some english, so I know he understood me when I slammed the door shut just after telling him his family was too loud and I was protecting the rest of the train from the horror that was his family. And then we disembarked, never to see them again. 

For our next long journey, we flew.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Dali...on fire!!

We arrived in Dali looking for a few restful days, and we got them! On alternating days, I was either sick or it was raining, so not the best way to see the place. The biggest attractions in Dali are climbing the mountain, riding bikes around the lake, and visiting the old town. And we did exactly one of those activities! The old town - cobblestones, canals, the whole bit - was nice enough (though not nearly as charming as Lijiang or Shangri-la) but our experience in Dali did have one incredibly memorable aspect.

By sheer luck, our 3 days in Dali included the annual torch festival, a local tradition in which the townspeople gleefully try to burn their town down. We met up with our friends Helena and Dave from Tiger Leaping Gorge to see what the fun was all about. And boy was it fun!
The torches before they're lit
All over the old town, people have built towers of wood, fireworks and incense (with fruit stuck in too...not sure why!) and then light them on fire. In between those towers, they walk around with flaming torches and it looks like the happiest angry mob you've ever seen. Right in the middle of town we found a huge tower (right between a wooden pagoda and a big tree) with fireworks that were set off from the top of the tower right into the crowd! We stood back a bit :)
Even the little ones get involved!
The last fun piece of the festival involves taking handfuls of pine dust and throwing them at the fire so you get quick-burning fire balls you can direct at people, as one local demonstrated on Cory:

The result of throwing pine dust at the fire
Although we certainly didn't have the most full experience Dali has to offer, we definitely had a memorable one!

Tips for your trip to Dali:
- We stayed at the Jade Emu and thought it was just great (provided you don't have a room next to the pool table, as we did...turns out people desperately want to play pool from 8am-midnight!).
- You can walk along the wall the encloses the old town (for free!). Go to the south gate to find the stairs up to the temple.

More photos of our days in Dali:
P8011340P8011350P8011353P8011355In Dali Old TownThe Fathers of Socialism
Molly hanging out at our Hostel in Dali

Dali, a set on Flickr.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Little Bit of Shangri-La

We left Tiger Leaping Gorge on a bus bound for Shangri-la. Except that there was a landslide in the gorge, so we were going to need to drive to the landslide, walk across it (yeah, while staring up at the "landslide nets" that in some places were holding more rocks up and in other cases, just hanging in tatters because the land slid through them) and get into another bus. Quite exciting, and not too well photographed as we didn't want to be those idiots who were photographing mid-landslide. That would be a truly stupid way to go (you're welcome, Moms!).

Three hours later, we arrived in Shangri-la, with good spirits but no hotel booking. Our first order of business was losing a woman we met on the bus who promptly looked at the map, the street sign in Chinese and proclaimed it was "impossible!" Or, you just take a few extra minutes, line up the characters on your map with the characters on the sign, and you're on your way! 

Shangri-la used to be named Zhongdian, but after an international discussion about the actual location described in James Hilton's book Lost Horizon, the Chinese government officially changed the name to Shangri-la in 2001, hoping to beat the competition. Other than potentially being the true location of a literary plane crash, Shangri-la is known for being the most "Tibet" you can get without actually paying for all the permits to go to Tibet. And what does that mean? It means you can go to this cute little old town, see prayer flags over all the twisty car-free cobblestone streets and eat yak in it's many forms (cheese, butter tea, hot pot, jerky, etc). 

We got off the bus, oriented ourselves by lining up the map and signs and set off to find a place to sleep. We figured it was an incredibly long shot (especially during high season) but set off for the top rated hostel in our Lonely Planet guide (Kersang Relay Station), walked in, asked for a room and got the last one, and it was clean, and in our price range to boot! And there was a map of San Diego on the door. Don't take this as a sign that one should do less planning though, as other people we met on the trip did the same thing, and had to go to a dozen hostels before they found one with room!

We spent the next few days just enjoying the mountain air, meandering the streets, and seeing the few budget sights. China has figured out that if you charge more for a tourist destination, more Chinese tourists will go because they figure it's more valuable if it's more expensive. We read that the most popular destination in town, the monastery, had raised its prices many times over in the past few years, and seeing as it was 150 RMB each ($25 US!) I believe it! Needless to say, we didn't go. We went to the free temple on the hill in the middle of town, had a great view of the valley, and spun the world's largest Prayer Wheel.

It takes about 30 people to spin the Prayer Wheel, using straps and handles around the bottom. It would be a great team building activity, because as a group (or one leader I suppose), the group has to decide when there are enough people to get the wheel spinning. Too few people and it becomes so frustrating that people leave. But wait to long for enough people to gather and people get bored and leave. It was fun to watch the process happen in Chinese, where eventually one guy would start yelling "one, two three!" (we assume) and everyone would push and pull and the wheel would spin. The local townspeople explained that spinning the wheel would bring you good luck (unless you're in the camp of believing that praying to God brings you luck, in which case the wheel won't do anything for you). We figured we'd just get luck by any spiritual means possible…always best to hedge your bets!

The other great activity in Shangri-la takes place in the main village square each evening. Music starts playing and the traditional dances start. The village gathers in a large circle (including both local people and visitors) and dances, arms flailing, bodies spinning, everyone trying to figure out who's leading and who's following. It's a fabulous activity for people who love joyful movement but have two left feet! Everyone's laughing and almost no one is any good, because there are so many bodies flailing in such a small space. Plus, there's nothing to make you feel like you've really traveled to a remote place like dancing in a Tibetan square with a bunch of villagers.