Giant Pandas and a Giant Buddha

Three pandas eating bamboo

After our program in Kunming ended, my roommate and I stuck around for a few days. Her mom was flying in, so while she adjusted to the time difference, we showed her around the city and I also took my Chinese final which I had missed when I had my migraine a few weeks earlier. One of the days, I made a trip to an outdoor store to buy hiking boots and pants for my upcoming trip to Tibet. After managing to find a pair of shoes that fit me, I then turned to the pants. Knowing that I would have to buy a bigger size than usual since I was in China, I started with the larges. Nope, they were too small, so the owner sifted through many boxes to find different sizes for me to try. Six or seven pairs of pants later, I finally found ones that fit – Men’s XXL. The owner and I had a few laughs over the situation, he kept saying “Chinese women are too small, no problem though, I can find something that fits you.” (All of this was in Chinese, of course). Once I had my two items, I tried to bargain since I knew that the merchandise wasn’t authentic, but it didn’t work. I didn’t have enough money so I tried to go to the ATM, but then my card wouldn’t work and it was pouring down rain, so I was only able to buy the shoes, but I came back the next day once I got more money and bought the pants. I had put too much effort into finding a pair that fit, so I was definitely going to buy them. If I had bought that pair in the US, they would have been a women’s medium or large, but nope, in China, that translates to a Men’s XXL.

A panda sleeping in a tree

So on that Tuesday, my roommate, her mom, and I all flew to Chengdu, in Sichuan province. The moment we stepped out of the airport, it was steaming hot even though it was 9pm at night. Having spent most of the summer in Kunming where the weather is between 65-75 degrees every day, this heat was a significant change (despite the fact that we spent three weeks in Southeast Asia, where it was also ridiculously hot). After having a little trouble trying to find the bus to take to get to our hostel, we gave up and got in line for a taxi. Between the three of us, we had a lot of baggage, which then gave us more trouble to get a taxi that could fit all of it. But we finally found one and were on our way to the Mr. Panda Hostel. When we arrived and had checked in, we immediately signed up for a trip to the giant panda conservation park the next morning.

That Wednesday, our van was supposed to leave at 7:30am, and I had set my alarm for 6:40 so I could eat breakfast and be ready on time. Well, my alarm definitely went off then, but I turned it off and closed my eyes for one second and next thing I knew, it was 7:20. Not even 30 seconds after I rushed out of bed, my roommate was knocking on my door wondering where I was. I quickly got ready and ran downstairs and we were on our way to the park. It took about 30 minutes to drive there, so we got there right after it opened. Our driver/guide took us to the first few panda enclosures, which each had one panda. Apparently pandas don’t like hot weather, so they have air conditioned areas they can go into when they get too hot. Why pandas live in Sichuan province or why the panda park is in Chengdu is a complete mystery to me, as it was so hot. As in it was so hot that my roommate and I came to the decision by the end of the day that Chengdu was hotter than Southeast Asia. But back to the pandas – we arrived at the first panda house, and right as we walked up, the panda came out and walked over to a huge pile of bamboo, sat down and started eating. Our group only had 6 people, so after watching the cute panda for about 5-10 minutes, we moved onto the next one.

He was very comfortable in the AC

The next panda was inside his air conditioned house, laying on his back. He looked pretty comfortable and did not look like he planned on moving any time soon. One of the workers came to try to get him to move to eat an apple, but all the panda did was sit up. By this point, it wasn’t even 8:30am yet, so we thought the park was pretty empty until we walked around the corner to the next panda area, where we found a huge crowd of people trying to get a look at three pandas who were sitting and eating bamboo. When pandas eat bamboo, they tend to lie on their backs and pull the bamboo towards them – it’s pretty cute and everyone was trying to get a good picture. We finally managed to sort of get near the front, enough to get a few decent pictures, and then we walked onto the next area, which was filled with Red Pandas. Red pandas aren’t related to giant pandas at all, except for their name, but they were still cute.

After that, we headed over to the panda nursery, where there was another crowd watching a mother panda play with her cub, who was small, fluffy, and adorable (probably a year old or so). We then walked around the nursery and saw a few pandas sleeping here and there in trees or tucked into crevices, but no other baby pandas, because they were all in the air conditioned areas. If you wanted to, you could pay 1300 kuai (approximately $200) to hold a baby panda, but I didn’t have that much money with me and it was a really long line, so we walked around the rest of the park where we got to see many more pandas either eating bamboo or sleeping in their air conditioned areas. They were all adorable, and in one panda house, two pandas were sleeping and the third was trying to wake up one of them. We thought he wanted to play, but once the panda was woken up and had moved, the third panda took his spot and promptly fell asleep. Around 11:30, we headed back to the entrance, found our driver and headed back to the hostel.

Chillin at the tea house in the park

The rest of the day we explored the area around our hostel, which included a large square with really cool sculptures/fountains and huge statue of Chairman Mao, and a local park. The park was really cool, some areas had people dancing and singing, others were playing badminton, and throughout there were several tea houses. We stopped to rest at a tea house, which was just a big outdoor seating area that served tea and snacks, and we ended up staying for two hours drinking tea and chatting. Many of the Chinese people there were playing mahjong, cards, or just chatting, but in that heat, it was totally understandable why so many people were chillin in the park. That evening we went to a hot pot restaurant down the street from our hostel, and the food was absolutely delicious. When we got back to the hostel, they helped us arrange a driver to take us to Leshan on Friday to see the Leshan Buddha, which is the largest statue of Buddha in the world.

The head of the Leshan Buddha

So Friday morning, my roommate, her mom and I were driven two hours to Leshan. After we bought our entrance tickets, we began the short hike up to the temple, which was built right next to the buddha. The Leshan buddha was carved into the side of a cliff, so you walk up to the head, and when we got there, the line to climb down to the bottom was ridiculously long, so we walked around and looked at some of the other temples and sites for a bit before figuring out what to do. We knew you could take a ferry to the buddha from the other side of the river, so we tried to walk down to the dock, and kept going down and asking people but couldn’t really find it. We finally found a path down which we thought would lead to the dock, but tons of people were walking up  it while we were walking down and all of sudden when we got to the bottom, we found ourselves at the feet of the buddha. We realized that we had taken the way back up down, and had avoided the really long line. At the feet, we took a bunch of pictures and rested for a while before heading back up, finding our driver and driving back to Chengdu. In all, we were in Leshan for about four hours.

The stairs down to the feet, which we somehow managed to avoid

The next morning, I flew to Beijing to stay with a friend from W&M for a few days before I had to be at my program on Sunday afternoon to go to Tibet. My roommate wasn’t going on the Tibet trip, so she and her mom traveled around China for the next two weeks.

The Leshan Buddha

Next post: Tibet! So sorry it is taking me so long to update my blog and upload pictures, but the internet here is 不太好 (not very good), so combined with having to use a VPN, it takes a while. Also, classes have started and during the week I have a lot of Chinese homework to do, but I will try to update when I can. Next weekend we are traveling to Northeast China for two weeks, so I will try to upload a post on Tibet before I leave, but I can’t promise that will actually happen.

 

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Lao PDR: Take 2

The boat we took down the Mekong River

This year when we went to Lao, instead of flying, we crossed the Thai/Lao border by boat from Chiang Khong to Huai Xay. Our group of 13, along with all of our baggage, managed to squeeze onto three narrow boats and then it only took us a few minutes to cross the river. Once we got there, we had to get our visas, and then we checked into our hotel for the night. Huaixay is a very small town, essentially just one street, and that evening we ate at a restaurant on the river. The next morning we woke up early to board a boat that took us down the Mekong to Luang Prabang. The boat ride was about 10 hours, and it was really cool to observe the changes in the river and the people living along the water as we cruised. When we first got on, most of napped for a bit and then we had a few lectures and discussions on a little of Lao’s history, intermixed with some economic and environmental issues. We ate lunch on the boat and then mid-afternoon we stopped at a cave/temple that had hundreds and hundreds of buddha figurines, ranging from really small thumb-sized ones to a few very large ones. We stayed there for about 15-20 minutes, and then got back on the boat and continued for another hour or so until we finally reach Luang Prabang.

The Mekong River

We stayed in Luang Prabang for about four days, which was a nice relaxing break on our busy trip. Our group was split between two guest houses, both on the Nam Khan river. Luang Prabang is situated on a peninsula where the Nam Khan river meets the Mekong. The first full day we were there, we went to Xien Thong Wat (Temple), and our guide explained the history of the place and significance of the Naga to Lao culture (a naga is kind of like a water-snake). Xien Thong is one of the oldest temples in Luang Prabang. Our guide then took us to the Lao royal palace, which we had a quick tour of before they closed for lunch. We then had the afternoon free and in the evening we went to Tamarind and had a cooking class on how to cook Lao food (same place we went last year). We made the same things as last year, but it was still really fun and the food was absolutely delicious! After the cooking class and dinner, we all went bowling. I did really well the first round, I got second place on my team, but then my arm injury started to flare up, so I did not do well the second round.

Wat Xien Thong

The second day we got to ride elephants! We went to a different place this year, which was much nicer, and we got there a little early, so they let us swim in the pool while we waited. Once it was our turn, we paired up and rode the elephants through the forest and a small village nearby. Last year I was pretty terrified of falling off, but since I knew what to expect this time around, I really enjoyed it, and when it came time to get out of the chair and ride on the neck, I stayed on longer than last year. We then went back to the village, got off the elephants and then had lunch. After lunch, we first went to some waterfalls nearby and then got to go down to the river with the elephants. Since there were only 6 elephants and 13 of us, half of the group rode the elephants bareback down to the river and helped bathe them, and then the other half of us got on to bathe them and then rode them back to the village. It was really cool and all the elephants were splashing us, and we were even allowed to stand on their backs, but I found it really difficult and could only stay up for about 15 seconds before losing my balance and having to sit back down so I wouldn’t fall in the water. After that, we kayaked down the Nam Khan all the way back to Luang Prabang, which took about 3 hours or so. We got to kayak further down the river than last year, so we went through a few rapids and two of our boats flipped, but everyone was ok.

The pool overlooking the river

The next day we went to a Chinese market first and looked around and asked them why they had moved to Lao, and then we went to the local Lao market to compare the type of products they were selling. After having lunch at a Chinese restaurant, we then had free time until the following afternoon, so we explored the town more, got some massages, and had a lot of fun. The following afternoon we left for the airport to fly back to Vientiane, the capital of Lao. We only stayed in Vientiane for two days, during which we went to the US embassy to discuss regional issues, both environmentally and economically, and then to the Mekong River Commission to discuss all things Mekong. We also went to the Cope Center, which provides medical care and prosthetics for people who have been hurt by the unexploded ordinances in Lao or by other diseases that have caused a person to need a prosthetic limb. When Hilary Clinton recently visited Lao for four hours, one of her stops was the Cope Center. The issue of unexploded ordinances in Lao is really interesting, but definitely extremely sad. Basically during the Vietnam War, the United States bombed the hell out of Lao along the Ho Chi Minh trail and many of those bombs didn’t explode, so today when people, mainly children, find them, the bombs can explode and injure or kill them. For more information, you can check out their website: http://www.copelaos.org/

Evan and I riding on the elephant

After two days in Vietiane, we flew back to Kunming to wrap up our summer program. On one of the last nights, several people wanted to get tattoos, so the rest of us went to the tattoo parlor to watch the four of them get tattoos. It was pretty cool to watch, but I probably won’t be getting a tattoo any time soon.

Next post: Chengdu & the pandas! So currently I just got back from Tibet and I am starting my fall program in Beijing, but I will do one post on Chengdu and then one or two posts on Tibet to catch up to present time over the next week or so (time and homework willing).

Thailand and a little bit of Myanmar

Our boat tour through the canals of Bangkok

Three weeks ago, we finished up the portion of our program in Kunming, packed our bags and headed to Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, my body has the worst timing with migraines, and one day before my Chinese final and two days before we were to leave for Bangkok, I woke up with a migraine. Fortunately, it wasn’t as severe as some of my previous migraines have been, but I missed the last two days of class and was unable to take my final exam. Checking out of our dorms and traveling to the airport with a migraine was not so fun, so I wasn’t too excited about traveling at that moment. One of the directors actually took me to the doctor to get some medicine before we left for the airport. I was afraid that ‘migraine’ would be translated just as ‘headache,’ but when I later looked up the medicine they gave me, it was indeed a migraine medicine, and it made me feel better. It was a very interesting experience going to a doctor in China. When we got there, my teacher shouted “yisheng!” (doctor) and immediately the doctor ushered me into a room, and then my teacher proceeded to describe my symptoms and then after a few minutes, the doctor gave me some medicine, we paid 15 yuan (a little over $2) for a stomach medicine and a migraine medicine and then we were on our way.

Me in front of the temple in Bangkok

That evening we flew to Bangkok and got in a little after midnight. En route to our hotel, I quickly discovered that they drive on the opposite side of the road in Thailand. I’ve never been to a country where they do that, so it was a little weird at first. We stayed in Bangkok for about 3 days, and the weather was extremely hot. On our first full day in Bangkok, we had a food tour of the city. We went to three or four restaurants and one bakery, and two of the restaurants were really old, they had been in business for about 40 years. We ate duck and rice, Tom Yum soup, some delicious pastries and Thai iced tea (which was so sweet!), chicken curry and coconut sorbet. The food was so delicious. We also went on a boat tour of the canals, went to a really beautiful temple on the river, whose name I cannot remember, and then went to the royal palace. In addition to all the fun sight seeing, we met with the Asian Development Bank to discuss economics and environmental issues in the Greater Mekong Subregion, and then went to a village outside of the city that had implemented some really interesting sustainable practices.

After three days in Bangkok, we took an overnight train to Chiang Mai. It was originally supposed to be a 14 hour train ride, but it wasn’t the fastest train and it stopped a lot throughout the night to pick up more passengers, so it ended up being around 18 hours. It was a really fun train ride though, and we met these two British guys, who were a lot of fun to get to know, and a group of French guys, who kept coming in and out of our car to chat for awhile. When we finally got to Chiang Mai, we first went to lunch and then met with the Chamber of Commerce to discuss economics and Chinese business investment in the region. After that, we went to a Thai massage class and had an introductory lesson. We all partnered up and the instructor would show us how to do different motions.

Hiking through the jungle to look for mushrooms

We only stayed for one night in Chiang Mai and the next day, we drove about 40km north to the Chiang Mai Mushroom Research Center, where we stayed in cabins and hiked through the jungle to learn about mushrooms. My environmental science teacher’s area of research is on mushrooms, and his PhD thesis advisor runs the center, so that’s how we were able to go there. We also got to go to a shade tea plantation and small whiskey factory, which were next door to the research center.

The next day we left the mushroom research center and headed to Chiang Rai, and stayed at Mae Fa Luang University. There we heard several lectures on hydropower, environmental and economic issues in the Golden Triangle region, and then we went to dinner with the students, who were from Viet Nam, Thailand, Myanmar, Lao, and China. Again, we only stayed here one night, and then we drove to Mae Sai, which is the Thai border town with Myanmar. I found it fascinating to learn about the Golden Triangle and the history of the drug trade in the region. We were able to learn a little about Myanmar (Burma), which also has a very interesting history. Since we had time, we were able to cross the border and go into Tachiliek, Myanmar. Border towns have always fascinated me because I think it’s so interesting how by just crossing a man made barrier, the language, the people and the overall feel and look of a place can be so different. Myanmar was much less developed than Thailand, but we walked around for about 2 hours exploring the town, and we saw a lot of construction. It was really interesting to see the development of the town and the contrast between houses whose residents were obviously very well off right next to houses whose residents were not.

Crossing the border into Myanmar

We weren’t able to stay long, so we crossed back over to Thailand, hopped back on the bus, and headed to Mae Sa Long, a small village where former KMT Chinese soldiers and their families lived. The KMT or GMD (Guomindong), are the Chinese nationalists who were fighting against the communists. When the communists won, the nationalists left China and settled in Thailand. We stayed here for two nights in a Chinese homestay, and we learned all about the history of the KMT as they moved around Myanmar and Thailand after the war, and their relationship with Chiang Kai-shek’s government in Taiwan. It was so fascinating, and we actually met two former soldiers and got to hear their story. It was so cool to read about the area of the Golden Triangle and the KMT’s involvement for our homework and then be able to talk to and stay with people who had lived through it all. Being in the town really felt like being back in China. They all spoke Chinese and there were traditional Chinese characters everywhere (simplified characters were made by the communists in order to make it easier for more people to learn to write). My host dad was one of the former soldiers, and he took us to the museum depicting the KMT history and commemorating those who had died, where he told us the history and his own personal involvement, and we even got to see a picture with him in it. It was so interesting and many people don’t even know about this place or its role in history. The KMT didn’t even fully disarm until 15 years ago when they handed over the last of their weapons to the Thai government and finally became Thai citizens.

The KMT soldier museum

After spending two days in Mae Sa Long, we drove to Chiang Saen, which is a major port on the Mekong River, and we met up with the students and faculty from Mae Fa Luang University and listened to a lecture on the economic trade in the port. That evening we drove to a small village outside of Chiang Khong, the border town with Lao PDR. We stayed in a monastery and learned about the challenges facing the village due to the development of the Mekong River. The village is extremely close to the new bridge under construction connecting Thailand and Lao. After dinner, the local youth performed a traditional dance for us. I also found this border area very interesting because many of the villagers had relatives who lived across the border in Lao since the countries’ borders were only recently drawn. We only stayed here one night and the next day, after touring the village and learning about their daily lives and interaction with the Mekong River, we took a boat across the river to Huaixay, Lao.

Our group joining in on the dancing

So I know this was another long post, sorry! But I wanted to write all of Thailand in one post so I can catch up my posts with present time, and we were in Thailand for a long time and went to a ton of places. Overall I enjoyed Thailand, but it rained most of the time and I was recovering from a migraine and then subsequently caught a very bad cold, so I think I would have had an even better experience had I been feeling well. Next post will be on Lao, and currently the Kunming program has ended, so I’m chillin in Kunming for a few days before I go to Chengdu and then onto Beijing for a few days before going to Tibet.

If you have any questions about what I’ve been up to or want more details since I’ve had to condense a lot of information into a few paragraphs, please feel free to ask!

A view of the river and Bangkok from the temple

The Royal Palace, now only used for ceremonial purposes

Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang

Three weeks ago, three of us decided we wanted to go hike Tiger Leaping Gorge. It is the second largest canyon in the world, and is located near the city of Lijiang, which is in northwest Yunnan. Since we had a three day weekend, we originally wanted to take an overnight train from Kunming to Lijiang, which would have us arriving in Lijiang early Saturday morning. From there we would take a bus to Qiaotou, where you begin the hike. But since we did all the planning two days before we left, all of the overnight trains were sold out, so we decided to fly to Lijiang on Friday evening and spend the night at a guest house in the old town.

The guest house we stayed at, Mama Naxi’s

So, Friday afternoon, we took a cab to the brand new Kunming airport, which is now the fourth largest airport in China, and then flew to Lijiang. The flight was only about an hour long. Upon arriving in Lijiang, we took a bus into the city, and then walked about 2 kilometers to the old town. Old town Lijiang is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it is highly overrun by tourists. Luckily, the guest house we were staying at, Mama Naxi’s, was located in a section of the old town that was far away from all the tourists. Also, all of the tourists were mainly Chinese, there were very few foreigners there. When we first got to the old town, we got slightly lost trying to navigate all the small roads and alleyways, but eventually we found the guest house. The guest house was really cool, it was a traditional Naxi courtyard style house, and we stayed in a “family sized” room, since there were three of us. The room had two bedrooms and a bathroom, and the bathroom had the type of shower that wasn’t separated from the rest of the bathroom, you just had a detachable shower head and handle with a drain on the floor. We ate a late dinner at the guest house and then walked around the old town for a bit before heading to bed since we had to get up early.

On Saturday morning, we had to catch a bus at 7:45, so we quickly ate breakfast at the guest house, and then one of the employees walked us out of the old town to the bus (there were so many streets and alleys, we would have gotten lost on the way to the main road). The bus service is run by Tina’s Guesthouse, one of the guest houses in the gorge. It was about a 3 hour drive out to the gorge, so we got there a little before 11am. You have to pay to get into the gorge when you get off the bus, but if you have an international student identity card, or just a college ID, you can get a half-price ticket. Normal price is about 65 kuai, and the student price was about 32 kuai (~6.5 kuai to 1 USD). So when you arrive at the gorge in Qiaotou, the first stop is Jane’s Guesthouse, where some people store their belongings, get a room, or eat before starting their journey, depending on their plans. We stopped in to get some general hiking information and find out where exactly the trail started. From Jane’s, we walked up the road for about 5 minutes, and just past a school, there are spray painted arrows guiding you up a driveway to start the hike. The whole trail has these painted arrows, and sometimes they can be difficult to spot if you aren’t looking out for them.

One of 3 or 4 waterfalls we hiked by

For the beginning of the hike, we walked through a small village and then the path changed from a concrete road into a dirt path as we began to ascend the mountain. Most of the first day is spent hiking up the mountain, which was very difficult for me, since I’m out of shape, but there were occasional flat areas when you were walking through a village. About two hours into the hike, we reached the first guest house, Naxi Family Guest House, and stopped for lunch. One of the infamous parts of the hike is called the “24 bends of hell” (or 28, depending on which guide book you read) and it begins a little after the Naxi GH. After you leave the guest house, there are many people with horses who will follow you and offer to take you to the top of the bends for a price. It isn’t very expensive, but we wanted to hike it, and some of it was so steep and rocky, that I would have been terrified to ride a horse up to the top. So about 20-30 minutes after the guest house, we finally got to the bends, which are steep switchbacks which take you to the top of the mountain. It was tough. As in, we had to stop after almost every 1-2 bends, tough. (This hike has definitely been the most physically challenging hike for me so far) They weren’t very long, just very steep. This one guy followed us with his horse for a while, and would offer the horse whenever we took a break, but we kept refusing. Occasionally, we would talk to him in Chinese, but about halfway up the bends when we had again refused the horse, he turned around to find another group.

After the 24 bends of hell, the path was downhill, and you descended most of what you just climbed, with the path occasionally leveling out. Along the trail, you keep running into the same people, which is nice because you can get to know them a little, find out where they’re from and chat with them when you run into them either at a guesthouse or at breaks along the way. During our hike, we consistently ran into two women from California, one guy from Virginia, several Europeans, and a Chinese group, who looked like they just walked out of store that sells camping and outdoor supplies, they all had every outdoor/hiking gear you could think of.

One of hundreds of pictures I took of the gorge

The scenery along the hike was absolutely breathtaking. Every time I looked up at the mountains, I was in awe. The mountains were so high and the river was so far down below, it really put your tiny human size in perspective. It is probably the most beautiful place I’ve ever been and it’s hard to capture that in pictures, but I hope some of my pictures can reflect some of the gorge’s beauty.

According to the guidebooks and info sheets we got, the hike from Jane’s GH to the Halfway GH should have taken 6 hours, but it took us about 8 hours to reach the Tea Horse GH, which is about 1.5 hours from the Halfway GH. Around 7:30pm, we reached the Tea Horse GH and decided to stay the night there since we didn’t think we would make it to the Halfway GH before dark. On Sunday morning, we got up and set off around 7:30am, hiked for about an hour and a half before arriving at the Halfway GH where we ate breakfast and ran into more familiar faces. After breakfast, we encountered a few waterfalls we had to hike through. Some of them were really easy, but a few were tricky. We hoped to make it to Tina’s GH, about 2-3 hours from Halfway, in time to hike down to the Tiger Leaping Rock before boarding the bus at 4pm. Unfortunately, it took us a little longer to get to Tina’s, we arrived around 1:15pm after setting off from Halfway around 10:15am. To hike down to the rock, it takes about 2-3 hours, so it would have taken us longer, and we found out that there had been a landslide on the main road, so we had to meet at 3pm to catch the bus instead of 4, so we didn’t have enough time (or energy) to make it down to the rock.

the landslide that destroyed part of the roadSo when we found out about this landslide, we pictured some rocks and dirt covering the road. After eating lunch at Tina’s, all of the people who were taking a bus back to Lijiang or Shangri-La, got into small vans and drove down the road until we arrived at the landslide. When we got there, we found a massive landslide with the largest chunks of rock I’ve ever seen that were not only blocking the road, but had completely destroyed it. The other side of the landslide was fine, and all of the buses were waiting for us, so we had to climb over the rocks and along an extremely narrow path they had managed to carve into the landslide. It was literally the most terrifying 5 minutes of my life. I leaned into the wall of the landslide and attempted to hold on to the rocks and dirt, but it all crumbled beneath my fingers. I pretty much freaked out and almost couldn’t move on the narrow path and one of the GH employees had to help me across. Basically if you lost your footing or made one wrong step, you would have fallen down the landslide. About 50-100 feet down, there were more large rocks, so it’s not like you would fall completely off the mountain side, but it was still terrifying, and if you did fall, you would have been seriously injured. Luckily no one fell. When I got to the other side, it was so freaky to watch everyone else walk across it. By US standards, there is no way in hell people would have been allowed to do what we did. There’s no telling at what point the rocks would fall again or another landslide would occur. When I looked up at the mountain side, so much of the rock was cracked, and as we finally boarded the bus and drove back, there were so many landslide nets over the rock, but I doubt they would do much in the actual event of a landslide.

A street in the old town of LIjiang

Sunday evening we arrived back in Lijiang and stayed at the same guest house. We explored the old town more, ate dinner and did some shopping. At night, the town is lit up by numerous lanterns, which was really cool to see from a high point in the town. On Monday, we slept in since we were exhausted from the two day hike, and did some more shopping and exploring in the city before heading to the airport to fly back to Kunming.

Alright, so after Tiger Leaping Gorge, we had four more days of class in Kunming, and then we left for Thailand, which will be the subject of my next post. Sorry this one was so long, but it was the absolute highlight of my trip so far and such an amazing experience.

Going Back to Dali

So I realize it has been a while since my last blog post, but I have been really busy! For our Chinese class, our teacher likes to take us on mini-field trips, aka making us use our newly learned Chinese to ask strangers how to find certain places and embarrass ourselves along the way. It has actually been really helpful and we’ve gotten to see some cool places. One of our field trips was to the Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital, which was only 2-3 blocks from our class. We walked in and were able to see a nice display case of the different herbs and plants used in TCM, and then we got to see the actual pharmacy where they combined all the herbs. In TCM, your prescription for your ailment is usually taken by drinking it in a tea form. So if you don’t have the means to boil the herbs and stuff at home, they will boil it for you there at the pharmacy. Other mini-filed trips included interviewing people in the park, trying to find a post office and buy an envelope and stamps, a trip to the antique market to learn how to bargain, and a trip to a tea store to watch the tea ceremony and taste some Puer tea (a tea for which Yunnan is most known).

Erhai Lake in Dali

Two weeks ago, our group traveled to Dali, which slightly northwest of Kunming. We left Kunming on Friday, and 15 of us squeezed ourselves into a very small bus and drove 4-5 hours through the mountains before arriving at Dali. We stayed at the same guest house as last year, and after dinner we explored the old city. It happened to be the 21st birthday of one of the girls on the trip, so Zheng Laoshi, me and another girl set out through the old city to find a cake. We found this small bakery that would make the cake and had it all decorated for us in about 15 minutes. When we brought the cake back to the bar everyone was at, the girl was so surprised. The cake was kind of large, but between the 8-10 of us that were there throughout the night, it was eventually eaten.

Saturday morning we got up early to have class at Dali University, which was nearby. It was interesting to see another Chinese University besides Yunnan University, and DU was built relatively recently. After lunch and a campus tour, we headed back to the old town, where we shopped and explored until dinner. Later that evening, a few of us wanted to see the reflection of the moon on Erhai Lake (one of the things Dali is known for), so we attempted to take cab out there with our limited Chinese. We even called one of our directors to talk to the cab, but somehow it just didn’t work out the way we wanted. We made it to the lake, eventually, but couldn’t see the reflection of the moon. We were supposed to take a cab out to the lake in a rural area about 10 minutes away, but instead, the cab took us to the very south end of the lake about 20-30 minutes away, right next to the new city. Oh well.

The Xiaowan Dam

Sunday morning, we left Dali for a while to go see the Xiaowan and Manwan Dams. Last year, we were able to see the Manwan Dam, but not the Xiaowan Dam. This year, we drove three hours to the Lancang (Mekong) River, had lunch, and then boarded three speed boats that took us up the Mekong about an hour and a half to the Xiaowan Dam. The Xiaowan dam is the highest arch dam in the world at 958 feet (292 meters). The boats took us as close as we could get, and then we got off and walked down the road. We were surprised that there didn’t seem to be any security around, so we went to the bridge and took pictures of it and then headed back to the boats as it started to rain. On the way back, we may have been stopped by some military officials “making sure we were safe” since the area could be dangerous and prone to landslides in the rain. (Great place to build a dam!) They were friendly and followed us back to the boats to make sure we left. By the time we got back, it was getting late, so we didn’t have time to go see the Manwan Dam, but nobody really wanted to by that point. We ate dinner at restaurant run by Chinese Muslims, in a local village that was relocated due to flooding of the dam reservoir.

Inside the Bai courtyard style house

On Monday, we had free time to explore, and a few of us decided to take a van out to a nearby fishing village, Xizhou. To get there, we drove along the lake and through farming areas, it was so beautiul, especially the lake. When we got to the village, we walked around, bought some local bread called baba, and then stopped at this one house. The house was a traditional Bai courtyard style, and while it used to just house one family, but after the reallocation of property a few decades ago, it now houses four families. One woman was home and we sat in her sitting room and talked with her for awhile. She was 96 years old, had 5 kids, several grandchildren and a few great-grandchildren. After we left the house, we walked out of the village into the fields, explored for a bit and then headed back to Dali, but we stopped at both the lake and the Three Pagodas on the way back. When we got back to Dali, the whole group got back on the bus and headed back to Kunming.

Notes:

As of this post, we have finished our four weeks in Kunming and are headed to Thailand tomorrow for a week and half and then on to Laos. I can’t believe the program is going by so fast. I will do one more post on China this summer: last weekend we went to Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge, but it needs an entire post to itself, so I will try to post that early next week.

So I’ve decided that I want to do some themed blog posts, like food, animals, or other interesting things in China. If you have any suggestions, or want to know about something specific, let me know and I might do a blog post on it.

 

Pictures to come later! I promise 🙂 I have a very finicky internet connection so it takes awhile to upload them. I will try to update the previous post with pictures later this weekend.

Kunming Round 2

Alright, so I made it back to Kunming successfully! I’ve been here for almost two weeks now, and I’m sorry I haven’t posted sooner, but wordpress is blocked in China now, so I had to figure out the whole VPN thing.

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This year I flew Atlanta-DC-Beijing-Kunming, and it went very smoothly. I basically got off the plane in DC, booked it down the C/D terminal in Dulles to my gate and boarded within 15 minutes. Once everyone was seated, we sat on the runway for about 30-45 minutes waiting for our flight plan to be approved, but I hardly noticed because I was already watching a movie (This Means War). I also watched The Devil Wears Prada, a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory, How I Met Your Mother and of course, Friends. I had an aisle seat, which was nice, because I could get up whenever I wanted, and I didn’t have to climb over anyone, and the two people in the row didn’t get up that often.

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Once I got to Beijing, customs went very smoothly, I got my bag and boarded the bus to Terminal 2. Upon arriving at the terminal, I noticed that my ankles were extremely swollen, so I walked up and down the terminal for awhile, and bought a few bottles of water and exchanged some money so I didn’t look like I was lost or crazy. The moment I got on the flight to Kunming, I passed out (I only slept for about 2 hours on the flight to Beijing, so I was exhausted). I fortunately woke up right when they were serving dinner. I got to Kunming around 10pm, and was picked up at the airport. My suitcase was slightly too large for the taxi’s trunk, so the lid of the trunk bounced up and down the whole ride to the dorm, and I was kind of afraid my suitcase would bounce right out, but it didn’t. My dorm is on the fifth floor this year, but luckily the RA carried my bag up the stairs.

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This year, the Kunming program only has 9 people, 7 girls, 2 guys. They are running both the Environmental Studies program and the Economic one, with 6 of us in the environmental program, and 3 in the economic one. Last year, we went to Vietnam and Laos, but this year we are going to Thailand and Laos, so I’m excited to see some different places!

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Orientation was pretty much the same as last year. For our ‘Explore Kunming Day 1,’ another girl and I had to find the Black Dragon Pool Park, which was pretty far away. We had to take two buses to get there (we later found out we could have just taken one, but oh well). Our director gave us the location furthest away because I had been to Kunming before and the other girl is in the 400 level Chinese class. For ‘Explore Kunming Day 2,’ we were divided into groups of 3 and had to complete a scavenger hunt around the city to earn points. My group won, so we won a free dinner at a local Yunnan restaurant and a free ticket to the movies. I really want to see Brave, but I think the others might want to see The Hunger Games.

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 We also went on a bike ride this year. Luckily, the route was slightly changed. Last year we rode around the city and then eventually out to Dianchi Lake, getting very lost and rained on along the way. This year, we rode straight out to the lake, so I actually got to see it this year, and it didn’t rain. We also stopped to play mini-golf again this year. At lunch, we had an excellent meal with a lot of local Yunnan dishes. One of the dishes served was crickets (or maybe grasshoppers, I don’t remember) and they were really good. Since last year, I’m pretty much willing to eat anything, so when I saw them set down the plate, I didn’t hesitate in trying one.

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Once Monday rolled around, classes started. I’m taking 200 level Chinese, so I have to memorize about 20-30 new Chinese words a day. I’m enjoying the class, but it can be frustrating and difficult. I’m also really enjoying the Environmental studies course, although sometimes it can be a bit depressing when looking at the grim reality of the situation, not only in China, but all around the world.

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This past weekend, we all went on a hike on Changchong mountain. It was a pretty tough hike. I was in the back of the group, out of breath most of the time. The hike up wasn’t too bad, and the scenery at the top was breathtaking. At the top, we had a 360 degree view of the city below, it was awesome. It rained lightly on and off as we hiked, and the hike down was a nightmare. It was very steep and muddy, so it was extremely slippery. So, basically we slipped down the mountain, grabbing on to trees and rocks for dear life. The whole hike was supposed to take 2-3 hours, but it actually took us 5. I slipped and fell pretty hard one time, and have a lovely bruise to show for it. Apparently, this is great practice for hiking in Tibet and then the Great Wall (minus the slippery mud), so it looks I need to get back in shape. Also, Kunming is already about 6,000 ft above sea level, so by the time we reached the top of the mountain, we were at about 8,000 ft. And Tibet is even higher. (For those of you who have hiked with me in Mexico or at the Cinque Terre in Italy, or have heard those stories, you know how much I love hiking. Although I’ve gotten better, I promise!)

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 So, I’m settling in to living in China for the next six months, but it’s not without the occasional frustrations. As of now, the VPN is sometimes slow, sometimes fast, so I’ll post when I can, and I’ll try to add pictures later. I also apologize for all the line breaks, but it was the only way to separate the paragraphs. For some reason, just hitting enter wasn’t enough.

The Land of a Million Elephants

On Thursday night we flew into Luang Prabang, Lao People’s Democratic Republic. I hadn’t even been in the country an hour, but I was already loving it. The atmosphere was just so relaxing and I loved the architecture and quaintness of the town. Lao is a very interesting country. Similar in size to Italy, the country only has 6 million people, and is one of the poorest in the world. The largest city, Vientiane, has less than 800,000 people and Luang Prabang is the third largest town with 103,000 people. The weather is still pretty hot, but the town is on a peninsula surrounded by the Mekong and Nan Khan Rivers, so it feels very tropical. The palm trees add to the tropical feeling, but at the same time, there are mountains around the town as well, so it’s a nice mix.

The waterfall pools

Our first full day in Lao was entitled “River Culture Day.” We started the day by kayaking  down the river. Our first stop was at an area with a lot of waterfalls and pools. Some of us swam for a little while, and the water was very cold but refreshing.

We then got back in the kayaks and continued on down the river for about an hour and a half. Along the way we saw several villages and people out swimming or fishing. It was really cool to see how much the river was involved in the livelihood of the people. We stopped for lunch at a restaurant on the river that is involved with the local eco-tourism. As usual, the food was very good. Lao food is slightly different than Vietnamese food. There are still noodle dishes and a lot of sticky rice, which I love. After lunch, we headed across the river to the elephant camp. As we walked up to the camp, we could see the elephants, and they were huge! The mahouts (the trainers who sit on their necks) were rounding them up and putting the seats on their backs. We climbed up the loading structure, and two people got onto each elephant.

Ai Laoshi and I were on an elephant together, and at first, I was slightly terrified of falling off, but there was a safety bar to keep you in the seat. The mahouts then led the elephants and we were off. We got to ride the elephants through the forest, across some creeks, and up and down muddy hills. The mahout told us we could switch places with him and sit on the neck. Ai Laoshi did it immediately but I wasn’t too keen on the idea at first. Once I realized I would regret it if I didn’t, I got out of the chair and sat on the elephant’s neck. You had to hold on with your legs, but it was such a fun and exhilarating experience! After an hour or so, we got off the elephants for a little bit and headed down to the river. The mahouts took the chairs off of the elephants and then brought them down to the river. This time it was one person per elephant (plus the mahout) and we were riding on the necks. The elephants walked into the water and pretty much submerged themselves, so we were sitting in the water on their backs/necks. The elephant I was on kept spraying me with water, which was very refreshing. It was such a neat experience, almost surreal, and definitely one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. After we said goodbye to the elephants, we took a boat down the river and got to watch the sunset, which was beautiful.

Me riding on the neck

The tree of life mosaic at Xien Thong temple

On Saturday, we had the most of the day free, so a couple of us rented bikes and biked around the town. Luang Prabang is a really good town for biking since there’s not much traffic. We stopped at a few temples, including one that had a huge tree of life mosaic. It started to rain a little, but we kept going. Around lunch time it started to rain harder so we headed back to our guest house and went our separate ways. The rain had stopped fairly quickly, so I decided to get back on the bike and explore more of the town by myself. I definitely enjoy biking now, it was so freeing to ride around the town and enjoy the beautiful scenery around me. I stopped at the market and got a sandwich and fruit smoothie for lunch before heading back to the guest house to rest for awhile.

Saturday evening we had a cooking class at Tamarind, which was voted the best cooking school in Lao. They drove us outside of the town in two tuk-tuks (Lao taxis) to the their cooking school near the river. They had a great setup outdoors with the stoves under one hut and the tables under another hut. We learned how to make sticky rice, fish in banana leaves, chicken in lemongrass stems, and a dip for the sticky rice. In Lao, they eat sticky rice with their hands and ball it up. The cooking class was really fun, although some of the methods and techniques were difficult.

Getting ready for cooking class at Tamarind

On Sunday we had the whole day free. I went to breakfast with two of the girls at a cafe on the river, which had a spectacular view. After breakfast, we walked around the town and did some shopping. Later we biked around the town and explored some more. In the evening, Luang Prabang has a night market down the main street with tons and tons of vendors. There was so much stuff for sale I could have shopped for hours. Luckily for my wallet, the market closed at 9:30pm, so I didn’t over do it too much.

Monday morning I woke up early to watch the monks collect alms at 6am. They all line up and walk through the town with their buckets and the people give them food every morning. It was a really neat thing to watch. At 7am, we left Luang Prabang for the capital, Vientiane. We drove there in three vans, and the drive takes at least 8 hours. The main highway from Luang Prabang to Vientiane is a winding road through the mountains that sometimes isn’t even paved. I was fine with the curvy roads since I’m used to driving up and down Signal Mountain, but some of the other people in my van were not, so it was a rough trip for them. The scenery along the way was beautiful and we stopped several times for pictures. Around 1pm we stopped in Vang Vieng for a few hours for lunch and to go tubing down the river.  All of the restaurants were playing Friends episodes, which I of course loved.

One of the bars along the river. It had a slide

Now this tubing was much different than other tubing I’ve done because here you tube down the river and stop at bars along the way. We rented tubes, got into tuk-tuks, which took us about halfway up the river. We were taken across the river by a boat to the first bar. After that, you’re on your own to tube down the river and stop at whichever bar you want. As you get near a bar, you wave to one of the workers, who throws you a line and pulls you in. When you want to move on, you just hop back in your tube and float on down the river. It was so much fun! The people were mainly European and Australian, not really any Americans besides our group, and the only Lao were the ones working at the bars.

After we had our fun, we got back in the vans and continued on our way to Vientiane. It was a long drive, we didn’t get into the city until 9:30 or 10.

Me in front of Pha That Luang

Vientiane is an interesting city with a low skyline. Not that much to do there, but it’s right on the river, which is the border with Thailand, and the sunset over the river is beautiful. We had more meetings with the US embassy, the Asian Foundation, the Mekong River Commission and the Greater Mekong Subregion secretariat for Lao. We spent three days in Vientiane and on the last night, we had dinner with some Lao businessmen who were very well connected – one of them plays golf with the prime minister on the regular. We also got to visit Pha That Luang, which is the symbol of Vientiane (kind of like the Eiffel Tower for Paris), and the National Museum. Vientiane also has a night market, but it was not as good as the one in Luang Prabang. Friday morning we got up early to catch a flight back to Kunming, where we have two more days before returning to the states. Lao is definitely my favorite, I just really love the atmosphere, and it is such a beautiful place.

 

More pictures:

Kayaking down the river

Swimming with the elephants

Sunset on the Mekong

Cooking sticky rice

A tuk-tuk (Lao taxi)

The monks collect their breakfast alms at 6am every day