On Monday I packed up a backpack and once again headed deeper into rural Guizhou, this time to attend a festival held by the Miao people of Leishan once every thirteen years to honor their ancestors. I went with Big Mountain and a family of Australians who have been RV-ing around China for nearly six months. (Please read Fiona's blog, Life on Nanchang Lu
. It is absolutely fantastic, and I can guarantee that she will make you laugh out loud.) Big Mountain has friends from a remote village outside of Leishan called Paiweng, and this is where we went to observe the "festival."I say "festival" because what I experienced over the past few days lacked many of the attributes that we, as foreigners, might imagine a festival from this region would have; for example, singing, dancing, bull fights, traditional rites or ceremonies. That's not to say that
what I observed wasn't fascinating, but it most certainly was not what I expected. (After this much time in China, you would think I'd have realized by now that it's best not to have expectations of any kind; this country is basically just one surprise after the other.) The Guzang Festival in the village of Paiweng has several major, easily observable components
The cardboard carnage featured in the photo above is the byproduct of one family's pyrotechnic display. In a village with dozens of homes (all made of wood, to the concern of apparently no one), the effect is quite overwhelming.
I'm sorry. I know that was gruesome. But I have far more gruesome pictures that I have chosen not to share for fear that you will run away and never read my blog again, so consider yourself spared. When we returned to the village Tuesday morning to observe the "festivities," the air was rife with the sound of shrieking animals. It was a horrific display, but necessary for the villagers. The pigs were slaughtered and then divided among the grown children in each household; relatives from near and far traveled to the village to celebrate, yes, but also to claim their share.
As a Westerner, I found this bit particularly tough to endure. But the reality of the matter is that if I cringe to see an animal killed, even an animal who has led a good life, cared for by villagers who truly depend on it for sustenance, then I am not fit to consume meat. I should find it easier to eat an animal whose origins I am familiar with than to eat the meat I'm used to buying pre-packaged on a white styrofoam plate in a grocery store. So instead of letting this experience turn me into a vegetarian (a lifestyle that, even if I wished to practice, I would find nearly impossible to sustain in rural China), I will let it influence the way I view eating meat at home. I will eat less of it. I will be more careful about where it comes from. I will investigate the actual meaning of "organic," "free range," pastured," and other labels, and make my purchases accordingly.
Anyway, back to the festivities.
3. Consumption of slaughtered pigs.
On this trip, I came much closer to eating those animal parts I try my hardest to avoid. I even sampled intestine (though I did not succeed in actually swallowing it). It was a lot like a spicy, pig-flavored rubber band. I kept chewing and chewing and it just wouldn't leave my mouth unless I spit it out. The villagers ate heartily, though, and watching them enjoy this special, rare treat was satisfying enough.
4. Drinking lots and lots of moonshine.
Those are not rice bowls.
Those are rice wine bowls. But if "rice wine" connotes a nice, sweet-tasting wine to you, then you, my friend, are sadly mistaken. I cannot describe the taste, but I can promise that I may have fewer taste buds left now. The large container in the back of that photo that looks like it should be holding bleach or gasoline? Yeah. It was full before the festival started. The only major advantage is that it probably succeeded in killing any bacteria hanging out in the food or tableware--my stomach is no worse for the wear after a few days in the countryside.
Here are some excerpts from my journal about the experience:
26 November 2012
We are sitting in what I can only describe as a living room--a wooden room open at one end with a moveable brazier in the center and tiny benches around it. We've been munching on sunflower seeds and chatting with the locals for the past hour. Every few minutes, another deafening round of fireworks goes off outside the door and the whole house shakes.
Women in various degrees of ethnic dress are seated around us--some in full attire (black velvet blouses, embroidered with brightly colored flowers, silver medallions hanging about their necks, and hair done up in a multi-layered bun studded with ornaments).
An old woman cleans fish in a large bucket in one corner.
The fireworks that have been going off for the past six or seven minutes straight come to a temporary halt and the room heaves a collective sigh of relief. Now the room has filled with chatter and--miraculously--with the sound of a television blaring from a back room. The home is perched on a mountain and appears to have been recently wired for electricity; whether the hut has plumbing remains to be seen. [Note: It did not.]
After four years of college Chinese, a semester in Beijing, two subsequent trips to the mainland, and three months in a small Chinese town, I am still remarkably inept at understanding what is said to me by these women. Their language only remotely resembles the Mandarin I learned in school; I can pick out words but lack the ability to decipher full sentences.
27 November 2012
We are at our second feast of the day, and our host is passing around a bowl of raw congealed pig's blood.
[Side note: Check out those pants! In Vogue: Rural China Edition?]
As the meal progresses, I look around the room and realize that I appear to be dining with a band of slightly impoverished Chinese vampires--their mouths are stained with fresh blood and their hands are rust-colored from the pig slaughtering earlier this morning. A quadruplet of octogenarians are huddled together in the far corner, feeding each other moonshine out of small shallow bowls. Every time one of them drains his or her bowl, the entire room erupts in a chorus of, "Ohhh!"
They don't look too rowdy in the picture above, but looks can be deceiving!
Earlier this morning I had the opportunity to wear a traditional Miao costume. It was all velvet and silver and bright shades of blue and pink.
The bells hanging down our backs tinkled with even the slightest movement, and our heads were weighed down by a crown of jingling silver.
The steep paths up and down the mountains are red with the remnants of fire crackers and pig's blood. In the corner of the room, a dog licks some blood off the floor. A toddler sits on a bench, listlessly chewing and swallowing stick after stick of double mint gum.
"It is in all of us to defy expectations, to go into the world and to be brave and to want, to need, to hunger for adventures, to embrace change and chance and risk so that we may breathe and know what it is to be free."
No, of course the title is not a drug reference. Please. I just don't know what else to call the feeling I have when I'm there. Shanghai is electric, insistent; it is throbbing with reckless energy and made of windows upon shiny windows reaching up to the sky. The air smells like opportunity and tastes like success. In Shanghai, the East and West dance a constant tango that sweeps me off my feet and has me dizzy with excitement, adrenaline, and awesome potential. It is an intoxicating, life-changing place that I find both thrilling and terrifying.
But if you know me, you know I am not a city person. I prefer out-of-the-way places like Saint Louis or Tübingen or Libo to their Chicago or Stuttgart or Guangzhou counterparts. Cities overwhelm me with their exhaust-filled air and noise pollution and crowded intersections--after a long weekend in New York or Berlin, I am always ready to head for the hills (literally) and leave the inhabitants to their commotion. The hills, after all, have much to offer: fresh air, enough room to spread your arms wide open and run around in, and quirky locals with stories to tell and the time to tell them.
But Shanghai has the ability to take the assumptions I have about myself and turn them upside down. I find that I am able to slip seamlessly into the jostling fray of elbows and high heels and caffeine. After just a few hours there, I already look at myself differently in the mirror. Maybe this sounds dramatic to you, and it might very well be. If I actually lived in Shanghai, perhaps the high would wear off and within weeks, I would be reduced to my normal, no make-up, Toms-wearing, country-loving, sensible self. But I am not so sure that's the case. I've visited dozens of cities on four different continents, and not a single one has ever made me feel the way that Shanghai does every time I'm there.
I honestly don't know what to make of it. I am back in Libo, but my heart is beating faster now than it was when I left. The city is magnetic; I can feel its pull sharply now. I've got work in the morning and I feel like I'll need a cold shower to wake me up out of this Shanghai-induced haze.
Luckily for me, a cold shower is easy to come by here . . .
Being friends with the head of the police force in Libo has its benefits. I met him at Nainai's funeral, and he immediately insisted that I call him "Liu Ge" (Big Brother Liu); at the time, I had no idea that he happens to be "kind of a big deal" in Libo. Like a lot of people here, upon meeting me, he insisted we take a photo together:
This past weekend, Liu Ge invited me to go on a hike with the local SWAT team. Let me be the first to tell you these guys were not messing around. The hike was conducted in full uniform as a training exercise. In other words, it was really, really hard! We hiked for five hours up (and down) four mountains averaging about 2000 feet each--a total of eight miles. The mountains were densely forested, but instead of being shady and cool, the forest acted as a humidity trap, ensuring that all of us were absolutely drenched with sweat within the first twenty minutes.
For the record, the mountains you see in front of us in the picture above are not what we were climbing.
This photo is of the last mountain we hiked over, taken from the village where we rested and had a late lunch before heading back to Libo:
Although the hike was a training exercise, the men acted more like boys on a field trip, singing traditional Chinese songs, whooping and hollering, and generally making mischief. Some of the more serious hikers engaged in a race, but most of us concentrated on not slipping on the rocks as we climbed (sometimes using our hands).
The Maolan forest is famous for "python trees"--trees whose branches have twisted around each other for a snake-like effect. Apparently, the forest is home to black bears and monkeys, but unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, in the case of black bears) we didn't see any animals (just insects . . . lots and lots of insects).
I once mentioned to Liu Ge that I am interested in learning kung fu; I figured since he's Mr. Badass Head of the Local Police he would probably know who could teach me. Little did I know that on the hike, I would be introduced to Zeng Shifu, my kung fu master.
He may not look like a crouching tiger . . .
but he is most definitely a Hidden Dragon.
My first lesson:
Another new friend, Deng Ge, proudly presented me with a tiny crab he caught in the river. He was so pleased with his gift to me that he insisted we document the exchange. Even more incredible than the fact that I'm holding a crab is the fact that Deng Ge is taller than me! I can count on one hand the number of people I've met here that fall into that category.
As we drove back into Libo, Big Mountain's daughter called me to invite me over for dinner. Even though I was exhausted, I find it nearly impossible to refuse her anything, so I took a quick (and mercifully hot) shower and headed to their house. By 9 pm, my muscles were yelling at me for having condensed an entire month's worth of exercise into five hours, and Big Mountain suggested we go get Thai massages.
Music to my ears! Had I ever had a Thai massage? No. Did I know what that entailed? No. But I was game--anything to ease the pain.
If you are a knuckle/neck/back cracker, then this massage is for you. Every limb was yanked, twisted, pulled and pushed into what I would have thought to be impossible positions. There was the usual kneading and massaging as well, although at one point the woman was doing chopsticks (with her hands, not actual chopsticks . . . funny that I need to specify) on my forehead. She used her knees, toes, elbows, and entire body weight during the massage; at times, I had a hard time keeping a straight face, especially if I looked over at Big Mountain having the same procedures done to him across the room. (By the way, in China, going to get a massage is like going to get drinks--you go in groups. Everyone in your party is in the same room, and you all change into silly looking pajamas and drink chrysanthemum tea and eat tangerines. It is as great as it sounds.)
Here are some images from the internet of Thai massages, to give you an idea:
Just kidding about that last one. But the second to last one? Yeah that happened.
After my massage, I felt like I had been hit by a magical bus that turns muscles into jello but also kind of hurts at the same time. But the next day, I thanked my lucky stars that I went. I expected to be immobile the day after, but aside from mild discomfort at the thought of going up or down a staircase, I was a-okay.
I know you were curious, so here's a picture of me in the silly pajamas.
Wee-ew-wee-ew-wee-ew! The fashion police are on their way.
This title may be a bit of an exaggeration. Am I rich? By American standards, definitely not. I've got the equivalent of eighteen dollars in my wallet to last me more than two weeks, but I'm not even sweating. It should be plenty. Though I may have to give up my afternoon bubble tea towards the end . . . And as for the famous part, well, I'm getting to that. It's all relative, right?
This morning I took a bit of extra care during my primping routine. It went something like this . . .
8:15: My alarm wakes me from a dream in which I live in the attic of an old, colonial-looking house with a family of enormous spiders. I'm so tired I would almost prefer to sink back into my spider dream, but instead--
8:17: I enjoy a cold shower for the fourth or fifth day in a row. I've learned to judge the coldness on a special scale, which goes from This-Water-Is-From-The-Iceberg-That-Sank-The-Titanic-Cold to I-Can-Nearly-Convince-Myself-This-Is-Lukewarm-Cold. Most days the water is a tolerable Pool-Water-Cold; just like getting in the pool, it feels freezing at first, but once you're in long enough, it's actually colder to be out of the water than in it.
8:25: I shiver myself into my clothes, chosen with special care this morning. Instead of my usual capris, decent top, sweater, and worn-out Toms, I opt for a nice shirt/sweater combo, khaki suit-skirt, and (omg!) high heels.
8:30: In honor of the occasion, I put on make-up (a first since arriving in Libo) and brush my hair twice. I'm disturbed to notice that today of all days, after three merciful weeks of no bites, I've awoken with an enormous mosquito (or spider?) bite on my face, just below my left eye. It has the unfortunate effect of making me look like I have just been punched in the face. I hastily apply cover-up, which infuriates the bite and makes my eye water from the itching. But you know what the stars say--beauty is pain.
8:40: I consume my last protein bar. Sad face.
8:42: I clean my room, make my bed, and put all my clothes away. Today I imagine that I will be having visitors.
9:00: I collect my computer, cell phones, and notebook, pack my bag, and head down two flights of stairs to work.
Why all the fuss, you ask? Because--because!--today, I filmed a segment for a local TV station! "A Day in the Life of the Foreigner in Libo" will air as a short news story tomorrow evening, and as a longer spot later in the week. I completed a fairly long interview rather successfully in Chinese, talked about my work and my new life in Libo, and even let the cameraman into my room, where he filmed photos of my loved ones and shot Alexy and I playing a game of "American cards" (gin rummy). I received notice that this interview would take place today just yesterday afternoon; apparently two nights ago I agreed to do it during dinner with my boss and some of his friends. Clearly, my strategy of nodding, smiling, and cheers-ing people when I don't understand what they're saying has some room for improvement.
And of course today, for the first day in what seems like forever, I actually had work to do. The rest of the day was spent contemplating the merits of various life jackets, officially hiring my second staff member (a marketing assistant), and reviewing ticket designs, among other things. At 6:30, my coworker Sophie and I went upstairs to have dinner with Eric and (as usual) some members of the government. It was hot pot again, which means that all manner of raw animal parts were hanging out on the table for us to boil in individual hot and sour soup pots by our plates. As you might imagine, this is not my favorite dining experience, but I've learned to live with it. I almost feel like the fish and chicken heads are my friends, winking at me at various points during the three-hour dinner as they spin around and around on the mechanical lazy susan. The beverage of choice tonight was brandy, which was consumed in such large quantities that by the end of the night, the only possible option was to go sing karaoke.
And guess what?! Tonight, I sang my very first ever Chinese karaoke song! Check it out:
To me, this accomplishment felt every bit as exciting as the prospect of being on television is. It was a smashing success, and further solidified my place as coolest foreigner within a hundred-mile radius.
I'll try to video tape the interview tomorrow on my iPhone to share with you all. You will be extra impressed, because chances are, you won't understand what I'm saying, and it will therefore sound perfect. Everybody wins.
One final thing of import happened today: my Chinese name was changed. My Chinese name, Xiong Wenlu (shee-yong when-LOO), has thus far been met with mixed reviews. Some think it sounds beautiful and traditional, like a movie star name. Others think it sounds like a boy's name. I have no way of knowing; all I know is that the name belonged to a Chinese girl in one of my classes at Vanderbilt and happened to be the only name I knew how to write when I went to Beijing.
Today, a government official christened me Xiong Xiaoli (shee-yong shee-yow LEE), which means that my first name is now "Little Li" -- "Li" as in "Libo". Adorable!
Sigh. It's almost 1 in the morning, and the spider dreams are beckoning. I will keep you updated on my "rich" and "famous" lifestyle as it unfolds, but for now, I must bid you wan'an--good night.
On the first evening of the Shanghai Boat Show, one of the yacht clubs had a fancy party for its members. And because they happen to be one of our boat dealers, we got an invite to attend. The party was a lot of fun, and was catered by an Italian chef (yes!). We sat with some Italian wine distributors and had a good time chatting about expat life in Shanghai.
The highlight of the night (pun intended) was a "bartender" who specialized in lighting bottles of alcohol on fire and juggling them. It was an impressive performance, but not for the reason you might think. Yes, he was good--but not good enough. He dropped flaming bottles of liquor not once but *three separate times* throughout his performance. The impressive part wasn't so much the juggling, but the fact that he didn't light any of the guests on fire. Win!
Here are a few more exciting pictures from my time here.
Riding the high speed train from Nanjing to Shanghai:
The health code rating at our hotel in Shanghai:
I like to consider myself as a person who has taken the "road less traveled." I have made it my mission to explore places far away from home, to understand cultures once foreign to me, to communicate with people in languages that are not my native tongue. This is especially true in my new job, where I will be helping to pave the way for American outdoor leisure companies to expand to China (and in the process, teach Chinese people how to enjoy the great outdoors while preserving the environment).
But rarely do I get the chance to literally blaze my own trail, spastically waving a piece of dead bamboo in front of me to destroy any spider webs in my path. So thank you, Big Mountain, for giving me such an opportunity.
Libo is a place of dazzling beauty, surrounded by mountainous "karst" formations that make even those who are only mildly enthusiastic about hiking (cough cough, me) feel the need to climb something. The national park has already been somewhat developed, so much of my trip was spent looking at (and participating in) the various activities offered (rowing a boat, touring a cave, taking a leisurely stroll through a swamp) and working with architects to brainstorm ways to make these activities more enticing to tourists.
One of the more popular locations in the park is the Waterfall Forest, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Though rather slippery and unkempt in some spots, there was indeed a path to follow on the hike:
Little did we know, however, that the Waterfall Forest was a mere warm-up to the main event: the Feral Pig Bamboo Forest. (Feral pig is their translation of "Wild Boar," which has a slightly better ring to it.) Big Mountain showed off his knowledge of his namesake and took us quite a ways off any sort of beaten path in an attempt to show us the entrance to a cave where he wants to offer ziplining. We never made it to the cave, but we did see a lot of bamboo. Luckily, the feral pigs were nowhere to be found.
It's not quite clear from the pictures how much we were forced to use our hands as well as our feet on this hike. My chief concern was that one of us would twist an ankle and have to be somehow carried out (the hike went from the parking lot down a series of mossy old stairs, through the bamboo forest, into a riverbed, up a steep slope of mud, and to another riverbed, this one with water in it, which is where we chose to turn back.).
Big Mountain, who is a world-renown photographer in his spare time (no joke, he works for National Geographic), taking a picture of some mushrooms:
Tim lends Tai a hand crossing the second riverbed (which was larger than it looks like in this picture, and also where we decided to turn back):
Stop to smell the roses? Please, this is China. Stop to use your cell phone is more like it. Hey, at least there was service! Not bad!
Now that it's all said and done, and all of our ankles made it out of the forest intact, I can safely say that this hike was one of the best parts of my trip to Libo.
I have so much to report about my trip in China thus far--I had hoped to keep up better with writing these posts, but busy days, late nights, and questionable internet connections have made it a difficult task to accomplish.
So where better to begin than the most exciting parts?
Adventure #1: Driving Conditions in Libo. There are waterfalls covering roads, roads that are more pothole than pavement, one-way roads up steep mountain paths, large trucks barreling towards you on said one-way steep mountain paths, and maniacal drivers who somehow manage to get you where you need to be without so much as a scratch on the car.
Two things are clear in this next picture: There is definitely a car coming at us from the other direction (far left), and Eric is not pleased with the situation. What's not as clear is how steep the drop-off is, or how difficult it will be for us to reverse out of the "situation."
We try the "wait it out" strategy, but it doesn't get us anywhere. (Obviously.) Here, we've already reversed about 300 meters through tricky terrain and are about to be able to turn around.
The driver of the offending vehicle leans out to see what's holding us up.
As there is literally no other option, we are forced to bow out of this game of chicken and head back down the mountain the way we came.
Adventure #2: Extreme Wilderness Hike is coming soon!