Thursday, October 23, 2008


I've been neglecting this blog for many months now, and the reason is that in July I left China to move back to America. I'm living in Seattle now, and in the near future I hope to write a post or two to wrap up this blog and my experiences in China.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Sheep Skin Rafts

In a recent bit of desert-themed traveling with Nissa, we visited Shapotou, a place that could only be described as a "desert theme park" outside of the small city of Zhongwei, Ningxia province. Shapotou is an area of natural beauty where the desert meets the Yellow River, and naturally has been turned into a ticketed tourist attraction outfitted with a zip line, camel and horse riding, sand dune sledding, dune buggies, a ski lift, and sheep skin rafting. We opted for the sheep skin rafting, which is just as bizarre as the name implies:

So for 80 yuan (around $11) each we had a river-rafting experience that would probably give PETA a heart attack. We enjoyed it, but I have to say the little inflated arms were a bit creepy.

Your days are numbered, sheep...

Fun at the Park

Now that summer has arrived in Zhangye the weather has been beautiful (if sometimes overbearingly hot), and there are few better places to enjoy the outdoors in the city than Ganquan Park (entrance seen in the above picture). Before coming to China, I had a pretty predictable image of what a "park" is: shady trees, couples taking leisurely bike rides, picnic tables, excitable dogs, and quiet. Most Chinese cities have at least one park, but they tend to have a uniquely Chinese spin to them.

At our park, there is everything you might need for a relaxing day out in nature: whack-a-mole, shoot-the-balloon games, an artificial lake, paddle boats, artificial rock sculptures, a basketball game, archery, fishing, copies of the David and the Venus de Milo, lamb kebabs, men playing loud drinking games, music, a carousel, a haunted house, bumper cars, a small roller coaster, and a zoo. In other words, it's not really a place you go to listen to the chirping of the birds, but it's fun in it's own unique way (I wouldn't recommend the zoo though, which might be more accurately named the Prison for Animals). It's a nice place to have a cold beer and sit under the (artificial) shade, but not a place to walk your dog or take a bike ride. Dogs are not nearly as popular in China in the first place, and bikes are for getting around and carrying things like your groceries, your new computer, or your girlfriend. When I tell Chinese people that at home we put our bikes on our car, drive 15 minutes to the park, ride around the park for fun, and then drive home, they think that it's hilarious. In over two years in China, I have also never seen a Chinese person running for fun, even on the track on our campus.

But my favorite park activity is something that I had heard about in China, but not seen here until this year. It seems to be called buxing qiu in Chinese, or literally "walking ball." The idea is that you get inside a giant inflatable ball which is then sealed and put out to float around in a pool of water. You then have five minutes to walk, roll, or flop around in your giant tethered hamster ball, to the great amusement of onlookers (in this case the little girl's mother, who kept shouting "run! run!"). A couple of pictures:

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Resources for Learning Chinese

For those learning Chinese out there, I thought I would mention some of the most useful resources I have found for learning the language.

By far my favorite Chinese lessons. The lessons focus on spoken Chinese and are in podcast form, so they are meant to be downloaded and listened to on your computer or mp3 player. Each lesson focuses on a pre-recorded dialogue, which is listened to and then discussed and explained by the two hosts (one native English speaker and one native Chinese speaker). The lessons are divided into five levels, so they suit any level of Chinese learner, and the topics are a good mix of the practical and the interesting. I particularly like ChinesePod because the lessons are well-written and teach Chinese the way Chinese people actually speak it (I'm amazed by the number of Chinese learning materials that fail at this), the hosts are personable without being over-the-top, and they've created a community around the website. By this I mean there are discussions around each lesson on the website where users can leave comments and questions, and the hosts of the lessons and other employees will personally answer your questions. The lessons themselves are all free to download, but you need a paid subscription to get the extra materials (including the written transcript of the lesson dialogues). I'm familiar with some of the audio lessons you can buy at the store (Pimsleur, Rosetta Stone, etc.) and have not been particularly impressed with them.
My favorite online dictionary. I particularly like the example sentences and the great tool for looking up characters by drawing them.
Another online dictionary that is actually aimed at Chinese people learning English, but is also great for seeing the words you look up used in example sentences (all with English translations).

A useful site for reading Chinese, in which you can copy and paste several sentences of Chinese text and have them "annotated," meaning that you can see the definition of each word or phrase when you hover the mouse pointer over it. Much quicker than looking up each word in the dictionary individually. The only downside is that for words that have multiple meanings, the site makes the best guess of the meaning relevant to the sentence and shows you only that definition, so if it guesses wrong you are going to have to look up the word in the dictionary anyway.

Oxford Starter Chinese Dictionary
The first dictionary I used, which is great for the beginner as it includes examples and notes about how to use words, lots of information on measure words, and sections devoted to things like talking about "time" or "musical instruments" in Chinese. Apparently there is a new version called the Oxford Beginner's Chinese Dictionary, which I'm sure is worth checking out. The dictionary I use now is the confusingly named Pocket Oxford Chinese Dictionary, which is excellent but not at all pocket size. All of these dictionaries use simplified Chinese characters.

Reading and Writing Chinese
A great reference book for learning characters, as it does the best job of any book I've seen of actually explaining the logic and meaning behind the characters. Be sure to pick up the simplified character version for mainland China and the traditional character version for Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Intensive Spoken Chinese

The first textbook I used, and an excellent beginner's textbook for learning the spoken language (the characters are included as well, but not emphasized). The first book in a series, which is followed by The Most Common Chinese Radicals and Rapid Literacy in Chinese. The last two are also recommended, and the series is widely available for a low price in the foreign language bookstores of large Chinese cities.

New Practical Chinese Reader
A five-volume series of textbooks that I have encountered through my Peace Corps coworkers, who have been supplied with the books for their language training. I haven't had the chance to use the books much myself but I've liked what I've seen. I'm not sure that they are available in China, and I haven't been completely satisfied with any of the more advanced textbooks I have bought here.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Drive-by Photography

Today I wanted to simply post some photographs I took the other day of daily life in Zhangye, many taken during a couple of long bus rides through the city.

On the university campus, in front of the apartment building I live in.

Middle-schoolers in uniform and the not uncommon sight of a entire family on a motorbike.

The tuta, or "Earth Pagoda."

The bumpy and over-sized "bread taxis" that we have grown fond of.

The drum tower, right in the center of town.
Most locals now live in modern apartments but more traditional homes are still around.
Out of curiosity we took a bus to a village just outside of the city. A man in a small shop with an unusually large mustache waved us in, also out of curiosity, and we spent an hour or more drinking and snacking with some of the local farmers. They had many questions for us but I sometimes could not understand their thick dialect, so they resorted to writing them out on bits of paper and passing them to me.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Grounds for Divorce

I was talking to a teacher who I am giving private English lessons to yesterday, and she made an interesting comment about divorce in China that I had never heard--a common reason for separation is housework. Many young Chinese have never been taught to do housework their entire lives, and when it comes time to live the married life the husband and wife have so many fights about taking care of the home that it ends in divorce. With the one-child policy and the particularly overwhelming Chinese love for children, many of the so-called "Little Emperors" are now spoiled at home, and not made to help take care of the home. There is also so much competition and pressure to get into the best high school, the best college, and get the best job possible that most parents consider the duty of students to study--and do practically nothing else. Many of the college students at this school are getting a part-time job for the first time, and others will work for the first time when they get their first job after graduation. The student who is giving me Chinese lessons has an uncle visiting Zhangye shortly, and asked me to please not mention the lessons to him--he told her to give up her tutoring and spend all her time studying, and she told him she would. A good many of our students must also hide the fact that they have a boyfriend or girlfriend from their parents, because the parents would never allow them to be so distracted from their studies.

Before she started talking about divorce in our lesson, that teacher asked me something that, as a 25-year old, sounded a little strange: "Do you know how to do household chores?"

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

After the Earthquake

I haven't mentioned the earthquake on this blog since it happened, but I'm sure it goes without saying that everyone in Zhangye has been concerned about it and the awful devastation it has caused. Though a few cities in Gansu province did see some damage and even some casualties, we actually didn't feel it here and I've been following it only through news reports.

At the beginning of last week, there were three national days of mourning for the earthquake victims, including a three-minute moment of silence on Monday afternoon. All of the foreign teachers were summoned to take part in a gathering of students and faculty in front of the library during this time. It was both a solemn and slightly surreal experience. It was like any other moment of silence in that the crowd itself did not speak and stood with heads respectfully bowed. However, it was the loudest moment of silence I expect to ever witness--all across the country, horns blared in the cities, in the taxis, on the ships, and on the trains. CCTV broadcast footage from Beijing during those minutes, and our school had set up a TV and enormous speakers in front of library for the event. Two students simply held microphones up to the TV, meaning that while sirens went off in Zhangye, sirens in Beijing being broadcast on the television were amplified into our ears in an odd and highly distorted sound collage. I couldn't quite get my head around it, and from what I've been told it was simply a Chinese way of honoring and remembering the victims of the disaster. One could write an interesting paper just on the meaning and uses of noise in Chinese and Western culture. This was also the first time a national moment of grief was organized in China for anything other than the death of the country's leader, and in general the government response to the earthquake is praiseworthy.

The second incident that stands out in my mind is a recent donation drive to help with the earthquake relief effort. I wasn't on campus at the time, but the other foreign teachers were called by Miss Mao from the Foreign Affairs Office on short notice and told to meet at her office.
Once there, everyone was told they were to donate money to help the earthquake victims, and asked to write down the exact amount they were donating a pre-prepared list with all of our names on it. Once this was done, they were led outside where a donation rally was held in which Communist Party leaders and the bewildered foreigners placed their donations one-by-one into a box, to the cheers of a crowd of students. As each person approached the box, they proudly held up a sign with the amount of their donation, which was also displayed on an electronic screen. The foreign teachers had to oblige, but each hid their money and paper in their fist as they donated. One teacher had actually had to borrow money to donate, because he wasn't told it was a donation at all and didn't bring his wallet. They also were not told who was handling the donation (the Communist Party), or really much of anything about it. The event was filmed, and later shown on the local news, similar to other donation drives we have seen on television. Students have also been asked to donate blood and money in high-pressure situations. Just when you think you're no longer surprised by the differences between China's collectivism and the West's individualism, something comes along to remind you just how differently things are done here.

(There is also a good post about donating on Sinosplice)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Pizza Hut in China

I was in Xi'an during the last few days, and for me personally one of the highlights of visiting a big city is the chance to eat real pizza. One would think eating at Pizza Hut would be a pretty cut and dry experience, but it's actually kind of interesting to see how it differs from going to an American Pizza Hut.

For one thing, it's "classy." The servers are well-dressed, the place looks really nice, and there are no groups of screaming children. Western restaurants are more of a fine-dining experience in China, even the ones that would never be considered as such at home. I'm reminded of a short story I once read by a Chinese author. A boy from a poor family was given some holiday money to spend on necessities, but decided to use it impress his girlfriend and take her out to an extravagant meal--at McDonald's. Awkwardness ensues when it turns out his mom is secretly working at the McDonald's to make some extra money for the family.

Pizza Hut also pretty expensive in comparison to Chinese food, so it caters to China's growing middle class, and a lot of the customers seemed to be working couples on a date. Despite the cost, Chinese spending habits were in full force around us. A nearby couple ordered fruit smoothies, salad, an appetizer, a desert, and a pizza, much more than they intended to eat. The other nearby table ordered drinks, chicken wings, meatballs, and three pizzas. With simply a large pizza to split, Nissa and I were the cheapskates of the place.

But my favorite image of pizza places in China, and unfortunately I don't have a picture (but try searching for "China salad bar" on, is the salad bar. You are only allowed one trip, so there is usually one crafty young Chinese person making a salad skyscraper on their plate. By this I mean they load an enormous amount of vegetables on their plate in an attractive pattern that is painstakingly constructed over 10 minutes or more. The dedication and attention to detail is truly inspiring.

And finally, I leave you with this:

Monday, May 19, 2008

Chinese Food: Dumplings 饺子

I love being invited to a Chinese home, because the invitation usually revolves around a home-cooked meal. One of my favorite home-cooked Chinese foods is dumplings, or jiaozi, which are made by wrapping amounts of meat and/or vegetables in little dough wrappings and then boiling them. Wrapping the dumplings is a fun, easy cooking activity that even the most culinary challenged can help out with, but there is a bit of an art to it and mine are inevitably very nankan (ugly). Unlike with most Chinese foods, dumplings can make up a meal by themselves and are usually not accompanied by rice or noodles. Everyone is given a small plate for vinegar and hot sauce in which to dip the dumplings.

The Chinese sense of hospitality is very strong, sometimes even a little overwhelming. When you are a guest in a Chinese home they will attend to your every need and you are unlikely to leave without being utterly stuffed with food. I can even find it a little too aggressive sometimes, such as when the host demands that I "eat! eat!" every time I put down my chopsticks. The above picture is from a recent meal Nissa and I ate with four Chinese friends. The plates of dumplings (the light-colored ones in the middle) were replaced numerous times as they were finished by plates of freshly boiled dumplings prepared by the woman of the home. Gender relations are much more old-fashioned around here, and generally the wife continues to cook while the guests enjoy the meal and the men drink and smoke. There was of course a large amount of food left over after the meal, and the hosts wouldn't have wanted it any other way, or they would feel that they appeared cheap. This also carries over into eating out, and with the exception of casual meals among good friends a Chinese person might order twice the amount of food necessary. A man with a job in business or politics especially might spend a good portion of his salary treating people to dinner. It honestly amazes me that the Chinese are so successful at saving money.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Chinese Food: Sweet and Sour Pork 糖醋里脊 and Home-style Tofu 家常豆腐

A nearly unanimous favorite dish among foreigners in China is sweet and sour pork, known as tangcu liji around here. It goes by other names in other parts of China, probably with variations. It is one of the few dishes in northern China that resembles American Chinese food (though it reminds me more of the "General Tso's chicken" than the "sweet and sour pork" at home), and is also simply delicious. It is a little unusual for a Chinese dish as it is all meat and has a very sweet taste. Most Chinese meat dishes actually have quite a bit of vegetables. And the meat is always in small bite-size chunks because, of course, you must eat it with chopsticks. You never cut anything in a Chinese meal and generally don't eat anything with your hands.

I can't remember ever eating tofu in America, and it definitely never tempted me. It sounded like something you would only eat out of vegetarianism and/or desperation. But the tofu dishes in China are great, so I've come around on eating it. I also never realized the word "tofu" comes from the Chinese word doufu, meaning "bean curd." My favorite is probably the jiachang doufu, or "home-style tofu." It's more solid and has a milder taste compared to other tofu dishes.

Eating out in a restaurant in China is a little different than in a Western country. We often eat at simple and cheap family-run restaurants like the one pictured above. The street in front of our school is full of them. The meal for two pictured above was probably around 15 yuan, or about US$2. Unlike in the West, where everyone orders an individual meal, in China you order for the table. We typically order one dish per person eating, but we might get a little more or less depending on our hunger.

The dishes come out one at a time, whenever they are finished cooking. Because they are stir-fried it only takes about five minutes for the food to start coming out, so there are no appetizers or bread, and salad is rare in China. There is also no dessert. The dishes are all placed in the middle of the table, and everyone at the table shares all the dishes. Everyone has an individual bowl of rice (or sometimes noodles), and grabs some food from one of the dishes with their chopsticks and brings it to their bowl to eat it with the rice. Germ-conscious Westerners are sometimes uneasy with this at first, but it doesn't take long to get used to it and actually prefer it when eating Chinese dishes.

Instead of water, the default drink is tea, which is usually free and served automatically. Soft drinks are usually unavailable and if they are will be unrefrigerated, so I always stick with the tea. Beer (also unrefrigerated) is always available, in extra-large bottles that are meant to be shared.

I like the small, family-owned restaurants. Besides being cheap the food is excellent, and the small staff is usually quite friendly and happy to see you. Nissa and I have learned to cook a small number of Chinese dishes, but it really isn't much cheaper than eating out so it is difficult to work up the motivation to cook for yourself. Many aspects of life in China that were once novelty now seem routine, but eating out is one thing I can always get excited about.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Chinese New Year

This past February was my first, and likely only, chance to spend the Spring Festival in China (I went home during my first winter vacation in China). The Spring Festival is the 15-day holiday that begins with the Chinese New Year, and is by far the most important holiday of the year, when practically all 1.3 billion Chinese people return home to spend time with their family. My friend Joy invited me to visit the home of her family and the families of some mutual friends in the area of Jiuquan (酒泉), a city roughly three hours from Zhangye.

Chinese holidays seem to mostly revolve around seeing family and eating, and I arrived on the evening of the Chinese New Year just in time for the large and excellent meal prepared by Joy's family. CCTV broadcasts a lengthy holiday show for the occasion, full of pop singers, acrobats, and skits that is the most-watched television event of the year, but I seemed to be the only one interested in it of the group.

Firecrackers are also a tradition of the holiday, to the joy of Chinese children and the dread of myself (for someone who doesn't like sudden, loud noises, China was a strange choice). The stroke of midnight on the New Year in China is the closest I ever hope to get to the sound of war.

The following day Joy and I took a bus well outside of town to the village where our friend Beth lives. Beth graduated from Hexi University and is now a teacher in her town. The people in Beth's family were as warm and welcoming as any I have met in China, and I really enjoyed my stay. Unfortunately, I could not say the same for the warmth of the unheated household--it was the coldest Chinese winter in 50 years, and we spent much of our time huddled around the cooking stove. I found her father to be a hard and silent man, but I gradually came to feel that he did like me. He was a farmer who only rested for five days during the year (for the Spring Festival) after all, a lifestyle that would leave me on the quiet side as well.

We passed the holiday much in the same way I usually pass time with Chinese people--chatting, eating a lot, pretending to understand the conversation, eating, and taking photographs. It was not action-packed but there was a simple charm to it that I appreciated. The Chinese I know in Gansu province always seem to act much younger than their age, and I don't when I've seen college students take that much pleasure in playing in the snow.

One of the moments that stands out in my mind was watching Joy play with a cat, an animal her own family had clearly never owned before. Not knowing how to pick it up, she firmly grabbed its front left leg and lifted it straight off the ground. The cat didn't seem too traumatized, however, as it did start to purr once she got it into her lap and started to pet it. But confused by the noise the cat was making, Joy exclaimed "he is very angry!" I told her it was purring because it was happy. "How would you know?" she laughed. "Are you a cat?"

When I left Beth's family after a few days, they seemed sad to see me go. Her two younger male cousins, who rarely spoke but spent much of their time around me, actually cried a little as I prepared to leave, which was touching and unexpected. Overall it was a relaxing and memorable experience, and I'm glad I didn't pass it up.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Chinese Food: Beef Noodles 牛肉面

Whenever I am asked "why do you like China?", there are two things I never fail to mention: the people, and the food. I haven't done quite enough traveling to know for certain, but surely China has one of the world's finest cuisines. But "Chinese food" encompasses a huge variety of foods. Each region in China has its own particular cuisine, and even particular cities usually have their own specialties. If I go to a nice restaurant in town, the menu will have dozens or possibly hundreds of dishes, some unique just to that restaurant. Though we undoubtedly have the occasional craving for Western dishes not available in such a remote place, I feel that we are pretty spoiled in the food category in Zhangye. In Shanghai for example, I'm not alone in thinking the Chinese food is at best mediocre, though of course they have the advantage of a fantastic international selection. At any rate, food being as important as it has been in my life in China, I thought I might write a few posts describing some of our favorite dishes, starting with niuroumian, or "beef noodles."

This is a local favorite with students, as it originated in this province (the city of Lanzhou) and is one of the cheapest meals you can get, usually going for around 2.5 yuan (or around 30 cents US). I didn't care for it at first as it is pretty spicy by American standards (note the red hot sauce in the picture), but I got used to it and it eventually grew on me. It's also not particularly filling, consisting mostly of some thin noodles and small scraps of beef in a soup, but it makes a great late lunch. Below is an old video I took at a small beef noodle shop during my first year in China. My friend Andrew and I befriended the owner, so he was happy to oblige my filming of some noodle making. Towards the end he can be heard announcing excitedly, "Lanzhou hand-pulled beef noodles!"

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Zhangye's First International Student

Originally this post would have been about moving to Shanghai. I had it all planned out: I was going to study Chinese at a university in Shanghai that has a large Chinese program for foreigners. The semester started at the end of February, and when it ended at the beginning of July I was going to finally return to America, together with Nissa. I would find an apartment upon arrival, having made appointments beforehand to look at several, and easily find part-time jobs teaching English to support myself. Tuition was expensive, I would have considerably more personal expenses including rent, and it would make my relationship more difficult, but I was determined to use my last few months in China to learn the maximum amount of Chinese that was possible. I'm also planning to take the HSK in June, a notoriously difficult exam to test the Chinese ability of non-native speakers. So in February I moved to Shanghai, took a good look around, and after three weeks I left.

Finding an apartment and my first job were not at all difficult, and I would learn a lot from my classes. But there many problems which I was not willing to overlook, mostly with the school. During my research I had heard many positive things about studying Chinese through a school--small, interactive classes that quickly improved your ability. With 15 hours of class a week, surely I would learn more than I could on my own. However, after our language tests at registration they put me in an intermediate class with 20 other students, mostly Korean and Japanese. Definitely larger than I wanted and expected.

In addition, the teaching methods were Chinese in all the worst ways. The teacher taught by painstakingly covering the textbook line by line, page by page, with many repetitive and dull vocabulary drills. The teachers spent a lot of time lecturing, and we had barely any time to practice speaking. Even in a three-hour "Spoken Chinese" class I don't think I was able to open my mouth and speak Chinese for more than two minutes, and quite a bit of class was time was listening to and being influenced by the mistakes of my classmates. The classes were also poorly coordinated--the Reading textbook was quite difficult, Listening suitable, and Speaking ridiculously easy. The textbooks were mediocre and uninspiring--dialogues and stories about making friends in the dormitory or moral lessons about why you shouldn't be lazy. Despite the school's receiving a huge amount of tuition from us (we were also overcharged for the textbooks), the only equipment in use besides chalk was a single tape player which didn't work. In over two years of learning Chinese it was the first time I was bored.

I also felt some disappointment with Shanghai, a city I had loved during my first visit as a tourist. Language practice was more difficult because the local people were much busier, less friendly, and much less impressed by foreigners in comparison to Zhangye. Many people either insisted in replying to me in English or didn't want to acknowledge that I was using Chinese, using hand gestures to answer my questions. I would have to work a lot of hours to cover my expenses, and commuting around the city was very time-consuming and exhausting, leaving me less time to study. And of course I missed Zhangye for its blue skies, superior food, low prices, and the friends I had made.

Luckily I had the option of getting a 70% refund (and I had only paid them half at that point) during the first two weeks of class, so I quit and made plans to return to Zhangye. Along with simply liking it here it is an excellent environment for Chinese self-study, and of course my girlfriend is still here finishing her teaching contract.

Upon returning, I had the problem of determining where to live, as of course I no longer have a school-provided apartment. It made the most sense to live with Nissa, but what would the school think about it? Our Miss Mao did find out, and summoned me into her office at the beginning of this week. I had no idea if she was going to kick me out or expect me to pay to move into my old apartment or what. It turns out she and the school don't care, but I have to simply go through the paperwork and be official.

I do still need to be part of some work unit or school to live in Zhangye, and studying Chinese in my living room doesn't quite cut it. So in classic Miss Mao fashion, she told me to write out an application--to study Chinese at Hexi University. So, to my great amusement, on paper I am Zhangye's first American "study abroad" student in the Chinese department of Hexi University. I'm tempted to attend Chinese department classes; maybe they won't notice me. I've been asked countless times in town if I'm a student in Zhangye, and finally I am.

Now that I don't actually teach at Hexi University it is easy to get a good two or three hours of study in during the day. I also have a private tutor, and am determined to learn just as much, spend less, and interact much more with Chinese speakers compared to Shanghai. On the side I tutor English and even teach Chinese to other foreign teachers. I also have a final chance to enjoy the wonderful local food. It feels good to be back.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Yunnan and Hong Kong Travels

I've just completed almost a month of traveling with my girlfriend Nissa, and rather than writing a lengthy post about it, I thought I'd select a few pictures and just make some brief comments.

A familiar face in Chengdu.

About two weeks were spent in Yunnan province, including Lijiang, renowned for its picturesque streets, surrounding mountain scenery, and unique Naxi minority culture. It is getting a bit Disney Land-esque and is a shadow of its former self (as evidenced by reading Peter Goullart's fantastic Forgotten Kingdom), but still an enjoyable visit.

Not far from Lijiang lies Tiger Leaping Gorge, which boasts some of the most beautiful natural scenery I have ever seen. The first part of the hike was a strenuous 7 1/2 hour day that at times taunted our inadequate physiques.

The view from our guesthouse. US$15 for a pleasant double room on a mountaintop. The second day of hiking was much shorter and less exhausting than the first.

A change of scenery and some long-awaited tropical atmosphere in Jinghong (景洪), southern Yunnan. It is the major city of the area known as Xishuangbanna (西双版纳), a taste of southeast Asia and minority culture not far from the Laos border.
I'm often unimpressed by the food when traveling when I compare it to what I know and love in Zhangye, but Yunnan delivered. The cafes of Jinghong serve some delicious and unique Dai minority dishes.

In Xishuangbanna there is a Wild Elephant Valley, a protected area home to around 50 elephants. The entrance was a bit off-putting, with fake minority performances, a deer chained to a tree, and a bear in a muzzle for the entertainment of the tour groups. However, the jungle trail was pleasant and we anxiously awaited the possibility of seeing the elephants.

We opted to stay overnight in the unique tree houses in the middle of the jungle. It was remarkably peaceful, as we were the only visitors to stay there. The short and smartly-dressed hotel keeper told us that our luck must not have been good that day, as we had just missed some elephants who had come down to the pool. She promised to inform us if they spotted any more elephants.

After a short time, luck was with us. We saw the friendly hotel keeper racing up the stairs from the staff building on the ground towards our tree house. Two elephants had been seen, and she guided us down the path towards the spot. We watched in fascination as the mother and son, who were soon joined by the father, lounged in a muddy pool and drank their fill for an hour or so. The father had a less than graceful moment while attempting to walk across a thin tree trunk, and fell hard onto his stomach. Eventually they crashed their way back into the woods, but we spotted them again in the pool beneath our tree house as it became dark. We watched and listened for a long time but they were still out there drinking when we went to bed. It was certainly one of the highlights of the trip.If you get a little outside of Jinghong or any of the other small cities in the area, it is a good opportunity to see some of China's minority cultures still living a fairly traditional lifestyle. The dominant group of the area is the Dai (傣族). Traditional Dai houses, far and away more appealing than the gray and lifeless modern housing of Chinese cities, generally are supported on stilts so that livestock (or apparently in some cases, a car) can be stored underneath the home.
The Dai are Buddhists, and their temples bore a strong resemblance to those I had seen in Thailand and Cambodia.

On our last day in Jinghong, we decided to go for one last bike ride outside the city in search of Dai villages. As luck would have it, a local Chinese high school boy with the English name Alan was renting a bike at the same time as us and was happy to become an improvised guide to the area. He took us to some villages that were closer than we expected and that we had already completely overlooked, and we were invited into the home of his Dai classmate in the first village. The room we saw was quite simple and without furniture or electric light, though we were given low stools and there was a television and refrigerator, neither in use. We took Alan to dinner as thanks at the end of the day.We were reluctant to leave the Banna area, and we disliked the next brief destination, Guangzhou, in almost every way (other than its free delivery Papa John's pizza). Actually, we didn't really see the city, as we spent the day frantically organizing our onward transportation. China has been hit by its worst winter weather in 50 years right at the time when the whole country goes home to celebrate the Chinese New Year, which has spelled a disaster of such proportions that it's gotten decent coverage in the Western media, even the cover of Time Magazine. At the time we didn't know anything about this, and were surprised to find a scene at the train station resembling a refugee camp in a war zone. Later when we read the Chinese news we saw Guangzhou's train station specifically mentioned as holding 150,000 or more migrant workers who were spending days there waiting for the chance to go home to see their families. We worked it out, but unfortunately for my budget it involved plane tickets.

We found Macau, on the other hand, to be an extraordinarily likable and unique city. Its years as a Portuguese colony (under more harmonious circumstances than long-time British colony Hong Kong, it seems) have given it a pleasant European feel and lovely architecture, churches in particular. Though an expensive destination by our standards (it's also a massive gambling center increasingly on par with Las Vegas), the food was good and the city unusually clean and organized. It was a fun place to simply walk around, window shop, and enjoy free samples from the bakeries.

Unique incense sticks at a temple dedicate to the sea goddess A-Ma.

Our last destination was Hong Kong. It was a good choice for the last stop in that it's an exciting, world-class city that we had looked forward to seeing, but bad in that it was outrageously and stupendously expensive on our Zhangye salaries. The highlight for me was a fantastic Cantonese restaurant we stumbled into randomly. I never thought eel could be so delicious. Coming from the mainland, Hong Kong is shocking in its cleanliness, level of organization, diversity, and English ability. A bizarre thing happened every time we paused on the street while trying to find something: a local would immediately stop and assist in flawless English, oftentimes physically taking us to where we wanted to go to make sure we found it. This happened no less than 10 or 12 times, and when in doubt we learned to stop, look confused, and wait. This never happens on the mainland, where locals and even those in the service industry tend to be impressively ill-informed and though often friendly, will never approach you on the street on the (very reasonable) assumption that you don't speak any Chinese. As neither of us speak a word of Cantonese, we were able to take a break from Mandarin and enjoy being a world of fluent English again. Unfortunately for the earnest mainland English students who eternally ask us "how can I improve my English?", the best answer seems to be "let your city become the colony of a Western power for 150 years or so."