The Last Ride

One morning this weekend, as I looked at the growing list of things that need to be done before I say farewell to China, I decided that in lieu of work, packing, or cleaning the house I would instead go on a bike ride.  The ride I decided to take was nothing special and having done it a dozen or so times all I needed was my bike, some water and I was out the door.  I rode through town stopping at a small bicycle shop to put air in the tires before cutting through traffic, down the big hill at the edge of town and out into the countryside.

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This last month has seemed like one in which I am forever saying goodbye.  A few weeks ago all the Guizhou volunteers got together for our annual end-of-year Chinglish Party.  We all bring shirts with the most outrageous English on them we can find and the winner is the person who brings the best shirt.  This year’s winner was “No Rest For The Juicy”.  The party, like all our parties, was wild but there was also a strong feeling of melancholy that clouded the weekend.  This was our official last hurrah and in the end we all parted ways knowing that we would not see each other again on this side of the world. IMG_3129

The day had started out hazy but as time wore on the sun began to assert its authority in the sky and it was as if someone had turned up the brightness dial on the whole world.  I rode past small villages, cornfields and rice paddies where farmers labored up to their knees in the soupy mud made by the erratic summer rains.  There are more homes now than when I first road through two years ago.  Many of the old stone farm houses have been demolished or slowly allowed to decay into piles of rubble and they are replaced by concrete or cinderblock structures which are whitewashed in the Bui style or tiled in a white, pink, and baby blue façade.  Fast-disappearing are the old country homes built of rock and wood where the front door leads into the home and the side doors lead into the barn.  It is a rarity to see the traditional gruesomely fanged masks that are placed above the doorway to frighten away bad fortune.  Yet some things remain constant.  Papers depicting the two door gods grace both traditional and modern dwellings while above nearly every entrance has been placed a small mirror in order to scare away ghosts with their own terrible visages.  Even the newer homes have gardens and as I rode by I could see corn growing in every available square foot of land or watermelon vines climbing up a trellis built for grapes or bougainvillea.  Nearly every piece of property abuts a small rice field all of which are like little ponds or swampy bogs in which the young rice stalks thrive. DSCF8694

By now the whole of the earth looked green to me in the way that green can only look when sunlight shines through leaves.  I looked past the fields and farms at the mountains as they began to draw closer.  The rugged Guizhou countryside is known for mountains like these that rise up from the ground as though they had been dropped from some great height and stuck into the ground at absurd angles.  The sides of the mountains that are not covered in thick green flora are white, exposed cliffs where rock slabs have fallen away to reveal the true color of the karst stone beneath.

Looking at the mountains reminded me of my last camping trip with students.  We snuck one in right on the edge of the rainy season.  After May, any attempt to go camping is a roll of the dice.  Last year I learned this lesson the hard way when I was forced to break camp in the middle of the night and head back early due to biblical levels of rainfall that poured over us making our tents useless and soaking everything that could possibly get wet.  This last trip was lucky.  We avoided any major rains and the students had a good time cooking and camping up above the towns and roads.  Before we broke camp and left on the morning of the second day, I took my flute and walked away from the camp to a spot over looking a kind of large valley between the peaks.  I sat down and reflected about my experiences in these mountains and when, if ever, I would see them again.  I played a tune for the mountains and they played one back for me.

I passed a group of women on the side of the road selling corn-on-the-cob which they slowly roasted over coal-fed fires.  Along with the corn, the old women also sold a kind of heavy bread made from cornmeal that strongly reminded me of polenta. I biked on into Ten Thousand Peaks and through the first village I came to.  On other occasions, when I have been biking for exercise rather than for sightseeing, I rode so quickly that the villagers barely had a chance to do a double take before I was already around the next bend in the road.  On this day, however, I felt the need to stop and appreciate my surroundings.  I looked at the way the villages have transformed.  One village in particular now has a small playground for children and the construction that abounded when we first arrived has now produced a series of uniform concrete structures, all white washed to preserve Bui ethnic identity (though many of the owners of these buildings are, in fact, Han Chinese).  A new parking lot with freshly painted white lines sits outside the village where once there was only farmland.  The busy stream of tourists demonstrates the merit of these projects and the village seems more prosperous than any place I have seen in the city.  I thought about the various times Emma and I had come to this village over the last two years.  About the times we visited the restaurant with a patio that sits in the shade of the colossal trees which grow along the riverbank.

These memories got me thinking about all the adventures I have had with my sitemate and all the things we have seen together both here in Xingyi, around China and Southeast Asia.  Emma and I have traveled to Kunming, Gulin, Yangshuo, Chongqing, Chengdu, Lanzhou, Dunhuang, Xi’an not to mention about a dozen trips up to Guiyang, many on the overnight ten-hour train.  Aside from Karen, the other foreign teacher at Xingyi, Emma and I have spent twenty-two months as the only obvious foreigners in the city.  In that time we have had our share of disagreements and shared lots of laughs but I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I do not believe I would have been able to stick it out for two whole years if it had not been for my absolutely incomparable partner in crime.  Our long talks on the seemingly endless bus and train rides and our ritual of eating fast-food chicken burgers at the Guiyang train station at five AM kept me sane and (relatively) level.   Emma is thoughtful, perpetually upbeat, has an ability to sleep almost anywhere, and is probably the most forthright person I have ever met.  She is optimistic beyond all reason.  I cannot imagine a better person to have spent two years with.IMG_3148

Such were the thoughts running through my mind as I climbed the final hill at the far end of the park and looked down over a small valley on the edge of which is situated Ten Thousand Buddha Temple.  I stopped long enough to drink some water and look out at the temple I had visited so many times before turning my bike around and heading back the way I had come.  As I passed through village after village and past those unusual karst mountains covered in a thick layer of greenery and proving a backdrop for flocks of white birds flying overhead, I new this would be my last ride.  Time grows short here and soon there will be more to do than are hours in the day.  I will say goodbye to my students and exchange gifts with the other teachers.  I will pack all my things, some to be shipped back to America while others will fly back with Emma for me to collect at her home in North Carolina when I pass through that way at the end of my trip through Italy and Spain.  My life here will come to an end and an unknown future lies before me.

A few days ago, while passing through the town square of Xingyi with my friend Lulu, I stopped and indulged a desire I have had for some time.  I asked Lulu to translate for me while I asked one of the many peasant fortunetellers that lounge in the city square to read me my fortune.  Lulu was reluctant, holding to the younger generation’s engrained opinion of all forms of superstition as being “ridiculous”.   But I insisted and the man had me pick several cards that variously described in the vaguest of terms things I had experienced and things that would happen in the future.  Among the wonderful insights this man shared with me were the following:  you are from far away, you will never have to worry about money, you have had some health problems in China, you will have a long and fortunate life, and (somewhat disturbing I thought) those you have tried to help do not appreciate your help and do not think well of you.  Now not putting too much stock into this kind of thing but glad of the experience, I happily left the square with Lulu though his last premonition did give me some food for thought about how much I have really accomplished here.DSCF8720

I do not know how much I have impacted this community or if I have helped in any meaningful way and given the snail’s pace of progress, it is possible I will never really see the fruit of my labors.  Nonetheless, I am happy that I have had this opportunity and I believe in the rightness of what we have done here.  All I can do is look back on this experience and try to use the lessons I have learned as I move forward.  I would not have traded this for anything.

““Our aim must be to learn as much as we teach. The corps offers an opportunity to bring home to the United States the problems of the world as well as an opportunity to meet urgent host country needs for trained manpower. It can promote international cooperation and good will towards this country. It can also contribute to the education of America and to more intelligent American participation in the world.”

~Sargent Shriver

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The Temple in the Clouds

The Peace Corps China 17’s gathered in Chengdu for our final mass training called the Close of Service Conference (COS).   While most of us still have two months left here in China, this was the official end of our Peace Corps service.  We spent two days discussing readjustment to American life, filling out final medical forms and reflecting on our time in China.

After we said our farewells to friends that we will not see until we are all back stateside, a few of us decided to take advantage of the May holiday to travel one last time.  Claire and I had both missed out on last year’s group hike up Fanjing Mountain near Tongren in the northwest of Guizhou and so we took the opportunity to make a slight detour on our way back to our respective sites.

We started our trip with an exhausting twelve-hour over-night train ride that landed us in Tongren where we walked around the city.  We climbed a small hill to check out an old Buddhist temple and meandered through the Tongren old town where we stopped in a small teahouse and Claire played a rickety old Guzheng or Chinese harp.  That night we went out with some locals and we drank honest-to-God draft beer while watching the moon rise into the sky and dance with its reflection in the gentle waters of the Jin river.

The next day we set out early for Fanjing Mountain and by the early afternoon we had arrived at the base of the stairs.  When we got off the shuttle we found ourselves in a cool, vibrant jungle where rivers cascaded down from the mountains and formed blue pools of crystal clear water.  The call of birds and possibly even monkeys could be heard from within the dense foliage as we started to make our way up the 8,000 stairs that lead to the summit.  Less adventurous tourists could take a gondola up most of the way but Claire and I relished the idea of a challenge so our packs heavy with food and water, we set off.

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The hike was absolutely beautiful but the stairs became rather monotonous.  We passed a few people coming down the mountain who stared at us with open-mouthed disbelief at seeing two laowai walking up all those stairs.  We climbed for about three hours before reaching the snack shop/guesthouse where we would spend the night.  We bargained with the owner but still had to pay an absurd price for two beds.  After that we dropped our stuff off in the room and kept hiking up to the main temple.  By this time the entire summit was shrouded in a dense mist and we could only see buildings or the contours of the mountain once we were within twenty or so feet of them.IMG_1257_zps1309b0ed  All along the path, chains that marked the edge of the stairs were bejeweled with heart-shaped locks and small wooden plaques covered in prayers.  Claire and I eventually came upon the main temple where we could hear a gong sounding and monks chanting from behind the massive closed doors.  From there, we made our way up to the Golden Summit which sits upon a gigantic rocky outcropping that shoots to up out of the mountain like a massive horn.IMG_1242_zps50b844b6

We followed the path up a narrow set of stairs that wound up the side of the cliff.  In our climb, the mist actually helped me to combat my intense respect for gravity since I could not see more than twenty feet down.  We kept climbing, Claire calmly and I with white-knuckled determination, and eventually we found ourselves emerging from a narrow crevice and looking up a small bridge that traversed the two halves of the mountaintop.IMG_1239_zpse2ed1497

Above, we discovered two twin temples connected by this small sky bridge and spent awhile wandering around and gazing not at some scenic views but rather at a cloud so thick it seemed to suck up all the light and sound in the world.  Feeling slightly unnerved by this abundance of nothingness, I pulled out my flute and played a little on the top of the Golden Summit.IMG_1237_zps02975331

That night we ate a meal of instant noodles and peanut butter and banana sandwiches under the guesthouse awning while mists and wind whipped up from below and above.  We went to bed once it got dark and slept fairly well until the next morning when all the other Chinese guests awoke at five o’clock and decided to turn on all the lights and have loud conversations right above our heads.

Once we had groggily packed our stuff, we headed up the mountain once again.  We followed the path up past the main temple but this time we took a right and began walking up and up to the slightly higher second summit.  It took us about forty minutes but soon we found ourselves in front of another small temple shrouded in mist.  We decided to stop for breakfast and hoped that the skies would clear even momentarily so that we might catch a glimpse of the famous views of Fanjing Mountain.  IMG_1250_zpsccfdbfa9 Unfortunately, we were disappointed in this.  The clouds never did let up and we began the long hike back down the mountain.  On the way down from the second summit we ran into a large group of tourists who had spent the night in the same guesthouse as us.  They were shocked that we were already coming down the mountain and we were equally shocked that despite waking up an hour before us they were only now getting started.

It took the better part of the day to get back down the mountain and by the end our legs were like jelly after coming down those 8,000 stairs.  We eventually made our way back to Tongren and from there to Fenghuang were we met up with our friends Trigg and Brianne.  I think both of us had really wanted to see some nice views from the top of the mountain but I also think there was something eerily beautiful about being up there in the clouds.  I could see how a monk trying to clear his mind of distraction might find it helpful to gaze into those thick cloudbanks and let his mind slip into the void.

The bus ride to Fenghuang was only a couple of hours and once there, Claire and I quickly caught up with Trigg and Bri who had arrived a little earlier.  Fenghuang means “Phoenix” in Chinese and the city is one of the most famous remaining ancient towns in the PRC.  The town is built along both sides of a river and bridges connect these two sides at regular intervals down the length of the waterway.  Small gondolas carry tourists and fishermen around town and at night the whole city lights up and the clubs begin to play painfully loud beats.  There is no doubt that Fenghuang is a major tourist town, especially for the Chinese.  Like Lijiang in Yunnan, the town has taken advantage of its unique architecture and culture to appeal to those hoping to see the fast-disappearing ancient China that is slowly being obliterated by the crushing weight of modernization.IMG_1284_zpsc878ef97

Our foursome spent our one, short day in Fenghuang wandering the streets and alleyways and taking a short gondola ride through the newly developed section downriver from the old town.  Heavy rains forced us to take shelter in a coffee shop for about an hour and the inclement weather kept the streets reasonable clear until mid afternoon at which point the clouds dispersed and crowds reappeared.  IMG_1273_zps539f0492I liked Fenghuang but I doubt that I needed more than one day to see it all and I was happy to be finally heading home.  Claire, Trigg and I said goodbye to Bri in the HuaiHua train station and by five o’clock in the morning I was back in Guizhou.  Though I may travel once more before leaving the country, this somehow felt like the farewell tour.  I got to experience all my favorite (and least favorite) things about China and I was able to see and do things that will leave an indelible imprint on my memory.IMG_1287_zpsc90d221f

Categories: China, hiking, travel | 2 Comments

With Fire and Iron

As any Peace Corps volunteer will tell you, one of the hardest things about the service is filling the hours and hours of down time.  Some volunteers do the responsible thing.  They work on secondary projects, they study Mandarin, or they spend time with host country nationals.  Others of us, well…we do our level best to stay sane, go to class, and not kill anybody.

Now, I’m pretty proud of some of my secondary projects like the English Language Workshop and the Hiking and Camping club, but I have still had far too much free time on my hands.  Consequently I have watched and re-watched many of my favorite movies including the hit films Kill Bill (Vol. 1 and 2).  As I was watching the second instalment of this delightfully gruesome kung fu masterpiece, I was intrigued by the following scene:

David Carradine’s enchanting music got me wondering if I could make a similar sounding flute.  A brief search of the Internet told me that the type of flute used by Mr. Carradine is called a staff flute and the Kung Fu actor was famous for making his own out of a kind of reed.  His staff flute was even featured prominently in the 1978 martial arts film Circle of Iron.  For all the information I found about Carradine and his flutes, however, I could not find a single page that had instructions on how to make your own side-blown staff flute.  After looking further into the subject I came across a number of different sites where I could find methods for making smaller flutes. I compiled all the information I could and set about my new hobby.

Step 1: Bamboo

I did not think I could find any North American reed in Xingyi Guizhou so I decided to make my flute out of bamboo instead.  Many of the sites I looked at showed how to make smaller (one to two feet long) flutes out of bamboo so I knew that it would be a viable material.  However finding the bamboo proved to be trickier than I would have thought.  Bamboo seems to be used for almost everything around here but not a single person could tell me where to buy it.  Eventually I went up with some students on a camping trip and asked my farmer friend whose home is next to our campsite if I could take some of the bamboo poles from the grove that abuts his house.  The man was eager to help and took me to a smaller grove where I measured out the poles that I wanted.  The farmer deftly chopped down the stalks and we dragged them back to camp where he immediately set about trimming the limbs and cutting the poles into equal pieces.

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The following day I carried the poles down the mountain and through Fei Long Dong Cave as the students and I hiked our way out of the mountains.

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Step 2: Curing

The bamboo was fresh and green when first cut down so I had to drive out the moisture in a process called curing.  I used the Japanese method which is to slowly spin the bamboo over hot coals until the skin turns yellow and there is no moisture remaining.  In my first attempt, I inadvertently burned two of the polls in various places and caused my first flute to crack making it unplayable.  To prevent the compartmentalized middle sections from exploding, I heated a long metal rod which I used to breach the nodes and allow steam to escape from either side of the pole.  It was pretty cool to see the steam coming out of the end of the bamboo while I wiped away the resin that sweated out through the surface with a dry rag.

Curing bamboo over charcoal to dry

Curing bamboo over charcoal to dry

Step 3: Hole Placement

Finding just the right place to put holes in the flute was challenging and I utilized a number of different schools of thought on the subject.  In my first attempt, I tried to simply magnify the hole positions of a small bamboo flute that had been abandoned here by a previous volunteer.  I burned the holes into the bamboo pole using the same heated metal rod as before.  This worked out fairly well and the result was a flute that sounded haunting but resonant in the way I had hoped for.  Unfortunately, this flute had a hairline fracture that, during the harsh winter months, splintered apart into a gaping chasm probably a result of the cold weather.

My first successful flute did not survive the winter

My first successful flute did not survive the winter

For the next attempt, I measured out where the holes ought to be using a series of percentages I found online.  I had to adjust these so the holes would be close enough together for my fingers to reach.  This second staff flute came out sounding nearly identical to the first one that had cracked.  It sounds and looks pretty good though not a good as Carradine’s nor does it have such a pure tone.

Step 4:  Traveling Flutes

Realizing that carrying a three-and-a-half foot-long flute back to America might not be the easiest thing in the world, I decided to make some smaller, more transportable flutes like the one Carradine’s character is playing in the opening scene of Kill Bill Vol. 2.  Three attempts later I had two working flutes, one in a traditional Chinese style and the other using a Native American design and hole placement.  Both of these smaller flutes sound better than anything else I have made.kill-bill-vol-2-2004-10-g

I am very pleased with the three working flutes I have now but I may try again in my last few months here in China.  I am also proud that I did not have to use any  electric tools while making these.  The only things I used were iron and fire.  Now all that remains is for me to learn the five-point-palm-exploding-heart-technique…

From left to right: staff flute, Chinese flute, Native American-style flute.

From left to right: staff flute, Chinese flute, Native American-style flute.

ps. Anybody interested in hearing what these flutes sound like can take a listen at:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KWkNOqYOQKk&feature=youtu.be

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Hainan Hijinx

I had two days of rest in Xingyi following my return from Indonesia.  I had expected to have longer but the upcoming Spring Festival limited my travel options to a fifteen-hour ride on the hard seat two days earlier than expected.  My destination was Hainan Island.  Adam and I had, over the course of the last few months, planned a bike/camping trip down the east coast of the island from the northern city of Haikou to the southern city of Sanya.  After I got off the train I almost got caught in the middle of a fight between two drivers who were vying for my fare.  I instead opted to take the bus which brought me to the ferry terminal in Hai An.  In some ways the ferries to Hainan are similar to those that run up in the Puget Sound back home.  By far the biggest difference, however, is that here in China, people have absolutely no regard for the protection of the ocean.  I saw people throw bottles, plastic bags, empty cigarette packs, and tissue paper over the side of the boat.  Normally that kind of thing does not bother me in China.  I mean this is their country and if they don’t care about the trash, why should I?  The ocean is a different matter however.  The waste they throw over the side of the boat going to Hainan may very well end up on the Oregon coast one day.  I grew increasingly irritated by this and when I finally got off the ferry I was pretty steamed.  I consoled myself with the reminder that every group of students I take camping gets a lesson in environmental protection and hopefully one day those lessons will begin to be more prevalent throughout the country.

I stayed at the Banana Hostel in Haikou and waited for Adam.  Unfortunately, his flight had been massively delayed and he didn’t arrive until about 2am after everyone else had gone to bed.  Adam passed the remainer of the night on the couch in the reception area and so began the hardest day of our trip.

Looking fresh and ready for our big trip in Haokou.

Looking fresh and ready for our big trip in Haokou.

Day One:  I woke up and met Adam downstairs.  I had acquired an address for a bike shop from the front desk so we set off with our massive backpacks to try to find this store.  After about forty-five minutes of looking we realized that the address we had was a dud and so moved on to the next bike shop.  I am glad we ultimately rented bikes from the second store because they had a sister facility in Sanya where we could conveniently return the bikes at the end of our ride.  We outfitted the bikes, rearranged our gear, and paid our deposit.  It was not until noon that we were finally on our way. We had been given directions for how to get out of town but unfortunately these led us somewhat astray and it took us nearly two hours just to break free of the city.  We were stopped for lunch when it started to rain.  All the other cyclists we passed on the road wore ponchos but Adam and I did not bother to dig out our own raincoats.  After a few hours and as we were passing a slate quarry, Adam caught a flat.  Fortunately a kindly tuk-tuk driver pulled over to give him a lift and I followed them into town where we quickly got the bike repaired and got back on the road.

Now we did not think we could make it to Wenchang on our first night but the closer we got, the more we wanted to push on to the beach.  What could have been a nice, easy ride had we started earlier in the day turned into a grueling eighty-plus kilometer ride that did not end until about 9:30pm.  It was dark when we arrived at the beach but we found an empty construction site and made camp not a hundred yards from the sea.  We set up the tent, locked the bikes together, and quickly fell asleep.

Our first campsite

Our first campsite

Day Two:  We awoke to find our legs encrusted in a thick layer of mud from the rains the day before.  I was already saddle sore and I could tell Adam felt the same way as we got back on the bikes and headed out of town.  It had taken us a long time to get through Wenchang the night before and it took us a long time to get back out again.

I woke up and realized how dirty I got on the ride down.

I woke up and realized how dirty I got on the ride down.

One of the funny things about Hainan is that though it is very developed in the big cities, some of the smaller resort towns are still putting in basic infrastructure.  Consequently, you will find, on occasion, that roads marked on the map do not necessarily exist in reality.  In Haikou, Adam and I saw signs for an “expressway” that pointed down a dirt road.  In Wenchang, there were multiple paved roads, lines and all, that simply ended as though the jungle had swallowed the rest.

We spent the day riding along windy roads and cruising over gently rolling hills.  Unlike many of the other cyclists we saw, Adam and I had opted for the road bikes instead of the much more common mountain bikes.  This limited our travel options somewhat and we had to forgo some of the more rugged looking roads.  Still I was glad with our choice and every time we sailed past mountain bikers huffing and puffing their way up an incline, I thanked my lucky stars that I was not trying to pull that additional weight as well.

At about five o’clock we pulled into Bo’ao after finishing off another eighty-kilometer day.  We scouted the best place to camp and then went into town for a fried rice and beer dinner.  Bo’ao is another developing resort town but still retains some small town, old world charm.  While most cities in China are fairly interchangeable, the main strip in Bo’ao looks more like something you might see in Mexico or Europe featuring an almost Latin-style architecture.  After dinner we made camp on the beach under the bright beam of a lighthouse that looked like something out of a science fiction novel.  As Adam called his wife Laurie to check in and recount the events of the day, I watched an old fisherman set up a pair of twelve-foot fishing rods in the sand along the water.  Both rods had a little glow stick attached to the tip, presumably to indicate if he hooked something.  I fell asleep watching the little dancing green lights bob up and down in time with the crashing waves.

Adam on Bo ao beach

Adam on Bo ao beach

Getting a fried rice dinner

Getting a fried rice dinner

Day Three:  I woke up to a beautiful sunrise that illuminated the green algae on the rocks by the beach.  Like the two preceding days, I got up and took a walk to give Adam a little more time to sleep.  I took the opportunity to take some photos of the beach and marvel at the good weather while taking a dip in the sea.DSCF8592DSCF8599

Soon Adam also awoke so we packed up the tent and went to grab some baozi (steamed dumplings) for breakfast.  The store sold two types of baozi.  One was stuffed with fried pork fat while the other was filled with pork ribs and half a boiled egg.  We chowed down on the baozi and got back on the road.

At one point during our ride that day, we realized that we would have to get on the highway if we wanted to spend that night on the beach.  I think both of us had been somewhat dreading the highway but to our surprise the highway proved to be, in many ways, a much safer, easy, and convenient option than the roads we had been using up to that point.  Right when we got onto the highway (we had not gone more than half a kilometer) I happened to look over my shoulder and saw a street cleaner barreling down on us in the next lane over, spraying water out of jets under the running boards.  Adam was ahead of me and I yelled “Hey Adam!” to try and warn him of our impending shower.  Adam, thinking I had a problem with my bike immediately began to slow as I rushed past him yelling, “Go! Go! Go!  Don’t stop!”  The truck soaked Adam and then moved into the far lane as it passed leaving me mostly dry.

That day’s weather was the best we’d seen and both Adam and I ended the day with serious farmer’s tans on our arms.  The good weather also afforded us a chance to see some very picturesque landscape.  While generally the hills flattened out to the east of us, to the west we could see jungle-covered mountains rising out of the center of the island.DSCF8606

We pulled into a little resort area called Shimei Bay for the night and, having knocked out our third eighty-kilometer day early, we decided to go swimming and play a little Frisbee on the beach.  As the sun was going down and we were washing the grit and sweat off in the clean cool waters of the South China Sea, I heard Adam give a shout of alarm.  “There’s a ton of little fish jumping all around me,” I heard him shout.  I immediately began to notice that around me too, little translucent creatures were jumping out of the water and sticking onto my exposed skin.  Fearing some kind of horrible sea leech, I tried to brush them off as Adam and I waded out of the water as fast as we could.  Once on land we inspected the creatures and discovered that they were, in fact, little shrimp.

We set up our tent near some other campers who had a bonfire and partied late into the night.

Day Four:  Early in the morning of the fourth day we awoke to the sounds of fishermen pulling their boats out of the bay.  We were again blessed with gorgeous weather and after a breakfast of probably the worst noodles ever made, we hit the road.  Having enjoyed the highway the day before, we continued to ride down the large, open lanes until we eventually stopped for lunch.  After lunch we kept going and only stopped for a short break to watch some golfers bogie on the back nine as we knocked back some water and sat on a rare stretch of grass.

Adam watching some golf

Adam watching some golf

After covering another eighty kilometers and as we were pulling off the highway I caught a flat and Adam and I were forced to pull into a nearby town to make repairs.  Outside of the town we saw that somebody, for reasons that pass understanding had impaled a duck’s head on a sharpened stake and propped its mouth open with a twig.  The rest of the duck was in a box next to the head.After we got the flat fixed, we headed down to the beach and again went swimming in the dark blue waters.  We got a few beers after dinner, found a back way down to the beach and set up camp under the stars in a kind of wooded alcove.  We drank the beers and watched a bright light from the island across the way sweep over our beach.

Day Five:  Our last day on the road was supposed to be a nice, easy, twenty-seven kilometer ride into Sanya.  To our chagrin, however, we were almost immediately greeted by the most intense uphill of the whole trip.  I spent nearly two kilometers in my lowest gear trying to hammer my way up the hill.  After that it was smooth sailing into Sanya and when we pulled up to the bike shop we lifted our bikes above our heads in triumph having covered over 340 kilometers over the space of five days.  We spent the rest of the day on Dadong bay (big dong) where we saw tons of naked Chinese men at the far end of the beach swimming and frolicking in the surf.  We celebrated our successful journey by eating street food and drinking beer.

VICTORY!

VICTORY!

We spent the next few days kicking it in Sanya before taking the high-speed train back to Haikou where Adam caught a flight back to Guiyang.  I spent one last night on the beach waiting to take the ferry back the next day.  It was so windy on the beach that I thought the gusts might rip my tent apart.  As I was settling into my sleeping bag, massive fireworks started going off right above me, illuminating the shaking sides of the tent with reds, yellows, pinks, and blues.  I had to break camp at about 4:30am as the tide came within ten feet of my tent.

I caught the first available ferry and left Hainan the same way I arrived, staring out at the grey waters through a haze that assured me I was indeed returning to the Chinese mainland.Screen shot 2013-02-13 at 5.05.08 PM

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Below the Equator

Bali and Lombok are two islands situated in the Indonesian archipelago located eight degrees south of the equator in the Bali Sea.  Their tropical climate and vibrant cultures have (especially in the case of Bali) led to ever increasing levels of tourism.  The islands are, in many ways, flipped mirror images of each other.  While Bali has a long-established history of tourism, Lombok has been slower to develop and the economy of Lombok is still predominantly agriculturally driven. Bali is mostly Hindu. Lombok is mostly Muslim.  Both islands have towns named Kuta and they could not be more different.  The one thing they do share is that both places are tropical paradises with dense forests, volcanoes, and white sand beaches.DSCF8368

I flew from Nanning to Kuala Lumpur and spent my first night in Southeast Asia trying to catch some sleep on the floor of the Kuala Lumpur airport.  I was not alone and as the night wore on more and more bleary-eyed jetsetters succumbed to fatigue and would sink to the floor in resignation.  Looking around I saw people from all over the world.  I saw women wearing burkas and saris and Europeans with hair so blonde it almost looked white.  But regardless of race, class, or social standing, sooner or later everyone was vying for space to lie down on the tiled floor.DSCF8311

The next morning I caught the plane to Denpasar in Bali and from there took a taxi to Ubud.  After a misunderstanding about the location of the hotel (I thought the Ubud Hideaway Hostel was in Ubud. Silly me.) I finally managed to catch a ride out into the countryside and finally found the hotel.  The plan had been for me to meet the girls Emma, Claire, and Claire in Ubud but they had all gone out on a bike ride that day so I got to shower and relax on the veranda of the hotel while I awaited their return.  We had the hostel largely to ourselves but we only planned to stay until the next morning when we took the fast boat over to the Gili islands off the coast of Lombok.

I thought there would be no way that we would be allowed to sit on the top deck of the speed boat but, in fact, people were already sunbathing by the time I got up there.  Emma and I watched Bali sink under the horizon while dolphins jumped out of the water not fifty meters from the boat.

At Gili Trawangan, we disembarked and walked directly to the dive shop/hostel where we would spend the next couple days.  Easily the biggest highlight of Gili Trawangan was, for me, the diving.  We all signed up for the “try dive” and after a brief morning tutorial we took a boat out and dived down about twelve meters off the coast of Gili Meno.  I had been a little nervous about breathing underwater but as soon as I broke the surface and got a chance to look around, I felt immediately calm.  We had incredible visibility and we let the current take us as we swam with brightly colored tropical fish and even a couple of sea turtles, one of whom kept a wary eye on me as I swam directly above him for a few minutes.  The dive was altogether too short and I could have happily spent the entire day exploring but the next day we rented snorkel equipment and checked out the water right off the beach in front of our hostel.           

After our try dive.  Everybody was really happy!

After our try dive. Everybody was really happy!

            Trawangan was fun and is known as the “party island” but owing to bad weather the week before we arrived, the island had few tourists during our stay.  One of the interesting things about the Gili islands is that they are predominantly Muslim and so every morning I awoke to the sound of the Muezzin singing the Islamic call to prayer over a loud speaker on the mosque.  The first Adhan is in the very early morning and I think they pray five times each day.

Another fun fact is that the Gili islands do not fall under the jurisdiction of Lombok.  Instead, there is a headman for each island who hands down punishments for legal infractions.  For serious crimes, banishment is the worst possible outcome though the islanders will take the offending person and drop them off on the beach of Lombok where police will be waiting to take them into custody.  I was told a story about a pair of French tourists who broke into a restaurant late at night and stole a case of wine.  The restaurant had a security camera so in the morning the culprits were immediately discovered.  The consequence of their thievery was banishment but not before they were forced to walk the two-hour circumference of the island dressed in sandwich boards detailing their crime, and carrying the case of wine.

After Gili Trawangan, we spent one night in Senggigi at the home of one of the owners of the dive shop.  The next morning Claire Donze and I hitchhiked our way into town, got a car, and were driven down to Kuta beach at the Southern end of Lombok.  Things in Kuta were cheap and we rarely spent more than five US dollars on a meal and we stayed in beachside bungalows for about the same price each night.  Kuta beach is something of a surfer’s mecca and when Emma, Claire M, and Irish Claire joined us in Kuta, we took a boat out to surf the point break outside of a small fishing village nearby.  It was challenging but I still managed to catch some waves.

Getting ready to catch some waves

Getting ready to catch some waves

That evening we watched the sun go down over the bay from atop a grass-covered bluff.  As ominous clouds began to move in and threaten us with rain, the fading sun released one last burst of color that illuminated the whole sky with an orange light that faded into a dark violet.

Claire, Emma, Claire, and Claire watching the sunset

Claire, Emma, Claire, and Claire watching the sunset

 

While in Kuta, we hired motorbikes which Emma, Irish Claire, and I eventually used to transport ourselves and a pair of surfboards over to Selong Balanak, a harrowing ride that left all of us somewhat rattled despite the fun, easy surf at the end.  Irish Claire took photos off the back of the bike while I drove through beautiful farmland and past picturesque bays.

A beautiful stretch of road near Kuta beach.

A beautiful stretch of road near Kuta beach.

After Kuta, I parted ways with the girls who went down to the Bukit peninsula in southern Bali while I went north to Ubud.  I had such a brief time in Ubud on the way out that I was eager to really get to see the town and all it had to offer.  Ubud is known as the cultural center of Bali and is home to dozens of art galleries and hundreds of temples (each Hindu home has its own dedicated temple).  It was also one of the locations from the book Eat, Pray, Love and consequently has developed into a serious destination for yoga enthusiasts and others hoping to find inner peace or inspiration. The “Om” symbol adorns boutique-clothing stores and Tibetan style prayer flags with Chinese characters on them hang outside many of the shops in a strange conjoining of languages and faiths.

Despite its commercialization, Ubud is still very cool and rice paddies can be seen behind the restaurants on the main streets.  I spent about three days in Ubud and during that time I met some pretty interesting people including an Australian college student named Ben who is an aspiring writer.  We got dinner together and later went out for drinks with a Swedish girl who was staying at the same homestay as us.  Before he left Ubud, Ben gave me a copy of Wake in Fright, a novel about life in small town Australian outback.  Ben said he likes to get people from other countries to read Australian literature as it is largely unknown outside of Australia.

One night I went to watch a traditional Indonesian dance called the “Legong Barong dance” which featured a full orchestra, colorful costumes, and some exceptional dancing.  Barong is a “lion-like creature that is the king of spirits and the leader of the hosts of good.”  While I was in town I also went to the monkey forest park and took a bike ride out to the rice terraces.

Barong!

Barong!

My time in Ubud was restful but I was anxious to be with people again so I headed down to meet the girls as well as Adam, Laurie, Louis, and Erika at the house they had rented down on the Bukit.  The house was absolutely incredible and was placed (somewhat precariously) on a cliff above a small bay.  The kitchen/living room that merged onto a large deck that gave the whole place an incredible sense of openness and space.  I spent the remainder of the trip with them and on our last night we all went out to a party being held in a hotel overlooking some cliffs.  The partygoers were mostly Europeans and Australians but I did meet a nice Canadian and one particularly intoxicated and flirtatious Russian girl.

The following day I left Indonesia from the Denpasar airport and flew into Kuala Lumpur where I had enough time to visit the Petronas twin towers before leaving the following day for Nanning.  Indonesia was amazing and I learned a lot about the people and the cultures of the islands.  I hope someday I will be able to return and see more of what Indonesia has to offer.

Petronas towers

Petronas towers

Categories: travel | 2 Comments

Santa comes to Zunyi

For the Guizhou Christmas party, Emma and I took an eight-hour bus ride up to Zunyi, home of Claire, Avery, Jason, and Beccy.  Our ride up was uneventful and we spent the majority of the trip curled up in our giant coats reading our books.  I finished Shantaram which is a wonderful book that gives alternating gruesome and beautiful depictions of Bombay.  We arrived and walked from the bus station to meet the rest of the gang for lunch and then back to Claire’s house.  It was cold in Zunyi but that was offset by the warmth of our friendship and our awesome, kick-ass coats.  We spent the evening catching up, eating sugar cookies, going out for hot pot, and watching “Christmas Vacation.”

Hot pot in Zunyi

Hot pot in Zunyi

We spent the next morning cooking and preparing for our big Christmas dinner.  I was on mashed potato duty.  We started drinking early at about 1pm and I vastly improved my god-awful fruit-juice wine by mulling it with cinnamon and nutmeg.  With everyone gathered together, we made our way over to Beccy’s large apartment on the other side of town.  Once there, we had a delicious feast of soup, green beans, duck, cornbread, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie.  After dinner we did our white elephant/footsie-stompy gift exchange.  Footsie-stompy is how we resolve the dilemma of somebody wanting to steal another’s gift.  The challenger and the present holder must hold hands and try to step on their opponent’s foot.  The first person to land the killer blow, is the winner and the loser must pick a new gift from the pile.563713_10151139261355194_1661371620_n

My gift contribution was that awesome fur hat and cigars won by Shri

My gift contribution was that awesome fur hat and cigars won by Shri

Practicing footsie-stompy

Practicing footsie-stompy

Christmas dinner

Christmas dinner

By the end of the gift exchange I was exhausted and ready to go home but everyone else wanted to go dancing.  We all met up at the 88 Club and ran that place like it was our job.  Zunyi locals were buying us drinks while we danced on the raised platforms.  Everyone had a great time but as we were leaving I realized I had missed a call from a friend of mine.  She had come to the Christmas party in Zunyi but had to forgo dancing in order to catch a train back to Guiyang.  From Guiyang she had to catch a flight across the country.   I had put her into a taxi with instructions for how to get to the train station about an hour and a half earlier but now her text message to me read: “something went wrong”.  Claire called her back and found out that there were no trains going in or out of Zunyi that night.  By this point it was about 3:00 o’clock in the morning and half of our group were already asleep.  Claire went to the train station and figured out that the tracks were broken and that my friend’s only way to make her flight would be to take what we call a “black cab” back to Guiyang.  Black Cabs are illegal transportation that serve as an alternative to trains, buses, or taxis.  The black cabbies often wait outside of train stations and bus stations, waiting to take advantage of people who are unfamiliar with the area.  I have heard several stories of people being gassed and robbed in black cabs and other stories of people being killed after choosing this mode of transport.

My friend does not have a lot of confidence in her Chinese and she is a tiny girl.  Claire wanted to see if any of the Guiyang volunteers would be willing to go with her since my friend was very nervous about taking a black cab by herself.  Most were asleep and the ones who were awake did not want to go.  I had already bought my ticket back to Xingyi and knew that a trip to Guiyang would be completely out of the way.  Still everyone decided that it was a bad idea for the girl to go on her own.  Finally, with nobody else willing to go, I asked Emma to try to sell my bus ticket and agreed to go to Guiyang.  Tired, annoyed, and still a little inebriated, I arrived at the train station and found Claire haggling with a gaggle of cab drivers over the price of the trip.  It took a long time but we eventually settled on six hundred RMB for a ride from Zunyi to Guiyang.  The man who drove us was tiny but determined and we spent the next two hours driving and listening to Chinese music in his little sedan.   I was so tired that I kept dozing off but my friend tried to keep me awake in order to talk to our driver who showed serious signs of fatigue.

We eventually arrived at the Guiyang airport and I said goodbye to my friend.  From there, the driver took me to the train station where I had to wait for some time for a city bus.  At six in the morning, Guiyang was painfully cold and I’d never been more thankful for my military surplus trench coat.  The bus took me to the long-distance bus station and by 7:25am I was on a bus bound for Xingyi.  I almost immediately fell asleep and did not wake up until our first stop about an hour and a half into the journey.  After that I slept intermittently while the driver blasted two “Rambo” movies on the bus’s television screens.  About six hours later I was pulling into Xingyi and finally got some proper rest.

The next day I was still feeling the effects of that sleepless night but I am happy to say I helped my friend make her flight.

Categories: China, travel | 3 Comments

The Inexplicable Death of the Elusive Xingyi Eagle

Not a real bird

Not a real bird

Full disclosure: the Xingyi eagle is a figment of my imagination.  I created the Xingyi eagle in order to teach a lesson on the environment and investigative journalism to my newspaper reading class.  The premise of the activity was as follows:

 

BREAKING NEWS-  Hundreds of rare Xingyi eagles were found dead today and no one knows how they died.  It appears that environmental factors are the cause of this tragedy but authorities are unable to solve this mystery.  YOU are an investigative journalist and it is your job to find out who is responsible and expose them to the world.  Placed around the room are quotes from companies, veterinarians, farmers, ornithologists, and the government.  You must read these passages and look for clues that might help you uncover the truth.  When you think you know who is at fault, write a short article detailing the evidence you found.

 

This activity was successful and many of the students were pretty self-directed throughout.  I was excited to do this activity for a number of reasons.  Firstly, I am passionate about environmental issues and while many of my students understand a lot of the basic ideas, there remain some concepts left for me to explain.  Secondly, China is a country that does not, by any stretch of the imagination, have what we in the U.S. would call a free press.  The media here is tightly controlled and while underground information might be more readily accessible in Beijing or Shanghai, such a loosening of the collar has not occurred here.  In my classes it is not uncommon for students to have general information that is either highly skewed or altogether wrong.  I thought that giving the students the opportunity to try their respective hands at investigative journalism might be a novel experience for them and one that might result in a higher degree of inquisitiveness and outside the box thinking.  I’ll be interested to see if any of them rise to the occasion with their articles next week.

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Foreign Football

Last year was a year of firsts.  Everything in China was brand new and each experience was something exciting, a new adventure.  This year there is still a lot of “new” to look forward to but some things have already been done and probably do not merit a second go-round.  Thanksgiving with Chinese friends in Xingyi was one such event.  Last year, Emma and I decided to forego the PCV Thanksgiving and chose instead to stay in Xingyi and make dinner for some of our Chinese friends.  We had a wonderful time but all the work we put into the dinner was not something I wanted to repeat this year.  Emma decided a while ago to go to the Neijiang Thanksgiving for Sichuan and Chongqing volunteers.  This left me with three options for how to celebrate.  I could stay in Xingyi by my lonesome, go with Emma to Neijiang, or go to Guiyang where the rest of the Guizhou volunteers would be gathering for the holiday.  I chose the last option and after a missed train (first one I’ve missed in China) I was on a bus to Guiyang.  While on the bus I reflected that I have taken somewhere around twenty-seven different train rides since coming to China with the average train ride being probably around ten hours in length.  When I arrived in Guiyang, I met Claire Donze in the Guiyang downtown where we had dinner together and caught up on current affairs.486365_10100534655807569_1481933451_n


I spent the weekend at Adam and Laurie’s house, which is large and comfortable, and together we baked pies and drank a little wine the night before thanksgiving.  The next day, we got up early and started cutting up the chickens (there are few turkeys in china) as other volunteers began to pour in.  61455_10100534657219739_1146631987_nDinner was set for three o’clock but the cheap Chinese wine was served much earlier than that.  Consequently, by the time dinner rolled around I was feeling mighty fine and more than a little thankful for all my friends here in China.  We had a massive dinner and my pies were a big hit.  After eating I had to lie down for a few minutes to digest all that wonderful food.  My reprieve, however, was short-lived as everyone began to gather together to go play football in the park.

Playing football at Guiyang Normal University

Playing football at Guiyang Normal University


We walked over to an open area near Adam and Laurie’s house and started a game of touch football.  We soon had a little crowd of Chinese students watching us while the volunteers who did not want to play cheered us on from the sidelines.  Even though my team got spanked twice, I had a smile on my face the whole time.  After the game, we went back to the house and just hung out chatting before closing out the evening with some charades.  The next morning I caught an early train back to Xingyi which greeted me with one last day of beautiful summer weather before taking the long, dark turn towards winter.

Charades

Charades

Categories: China, travel | 1 Comment

The English Language Workshop

On Friday, I finally took student volunteers to Malin Middle School for our English Language Workshop.  After more than four months of planning and more than a few headaches along the home stretch, I can say that I have successfully implemented an education program here in Xingyi.

I woke up at around 5:45 am on Friday morning because I could not sleep for fear that something might go wrong.  I thought I heard rain falling outside and gave a deep groan into my pillow.  I went to the front door and in the dim morning light I could see that, in fact, no rain had fallen and what I had heard had just been running water from my neighbor’s house.  I spent those early hours preparing for the day and putting some last minute touches on some of the various materials.

The road to get to this point has been a long one.  Last semester, my friend Jordan (a local government worker) and I discussed creating a program where we would take student volunteers from Xingyi University to outlying rural schools.  Students at these schools rarely get the opportunity to practice oral English and have little interest in English as a subject.  Our goal was to provide an opportunity for students see the fun and interesting side of English while offering the teachers at these schools a chance to see first hand how we use the Communicative Learning Approach to teach students English.

Malin students in front of their school

To fund the project and the purchase of the necessary materials as well as pay for transport, I had submitted a project proposal to the Peace Corps Partnership Program which in turn gave me all the funding I requested.  I received 2,439 RMB (or 381.69 US dollars) to execute my program

We were to leave at about 12:30 but I received a call from Susan our assistant Foreign Affairs Officer at 11:00am telling me that we would have to take a different route than the one originally planned.  Susan went on to explain that Ms. Qiao, the head of the Foreign Affairs Department could not attend because she would be meeting with the Syrian Ambassador today.  Now Ms. Qiao had been organizing all our transportation so you can imagine my chagrin to discover that she would not be attending after all the careful planning we had gone through to organize this event.  Still the show must go on, so I packed the materials and met my students in front of the school.

Volunteers heading to the school

At Malin Middle School, we quickly set up and I organized my students into groups before giving a short speech to the Middle school students explaining what we would do that day.  After that it was a round-robin affair with students passing from one activity to the next every thirty minutes.  Students did activities like Simon says, English Dodgeball, Telephone, Bingo, and Blindfolded Directions.  At first the students were a little shy about participating but soon they were becoming more enthusiastic.  Bingo and dodgeball were especially popular and as I drifted from activity to activity to check on my volunteers, I saw a lot of smiling faces.

Playing English Dodgeball

After the Workshop, the students sang a song for us and then were dismissed from school. I gave the English teachers a packet of ideas for Communicative activities which they greeted with lukewarm enthusiasm.  I hope to get a better reaction from the next group I see.  On the way back to Xingyi, my students were elated and many vowed to go to the next school with me in November.  “I think we can do it,” one of my students told me before running off to eat the leftover Bingo candy with her friends.

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City of Sands

Our route from Xingyi to Dunhuang

This year the Chinese National Holiday coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival which made for a sort of super-holiday that lasted for over a week.  Taking advantage of this extended break, Emma and I embarked on an epic journey to the far Northwest of China’s Gansu province.  We began our trip with a short eleven-hour bus ride to Chongqing city where we spent what remained of the night at our friend Ashley Wasil’s house.  The following morning, Ashley made us a breakfast of eggs, sausage and homemade bagels while treating us to some real American coffee.  This delicious meal helped prepare us for the next leg of our trip which entailed a twenty-two hour train ride to Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu.

Claire Donze, a fellow Guizhou volunteer, joined us on this leg of the trip.  We had “standing” tickets for the train so as soon as we boarded, we carved out a little space in between the cars.  Unfortunately our little cubby was sandwiched between the leaky boiler room and a coal shoot.  We spent a good two hours sitting on our luggage and trying hard not to think about how much farther we had to go.  Eventually, driven out by the choking coal dust, we went to see if there were any extra seats to be had.  It turned out that in fact all the passengers on the train had standing tickets and that seats were acquired on a first-come first-served basis.

Claire and I getting comfy on the train

We spent the rest of the trip in comfort while little by little the train emptied as we got closer to Lanzhou.  By two o’clock in the morning, all three of us had sufficient space to spread out on the larger seats and actually sleep.  In Lanzhou we were met by our two remaining travel companions Ciara and Arielle, as well as Mike, a PCV living in Lanzhou.  Mike had planned on travelling with us but was still waiting for his visa to be renewed by the time we arrived in Lanzhou.  We had just enough time to re-provision in Lanzhou before catching yet another train to our final destination, Dunhuang.

The train ride to Dunhuang was one of the most fun and also most uncomfortable rides I have taken in China.  In celebration of Emma’s birthday, Arielle and Ciara had packed a load of small entertainments and delicious treats for the trip.

Happy birthday Emma!

We also brought four bottles of wine which we drank while applying temporary tattoos, wearing party hats, and playing mafia with some new Chinese friends.  By two in the morning I was exhausted and ready to sleep.  Sleep, however, proved an elusive goal and I spent most of the night trying to prevent other passengers from invading our small space.

Daylight offered us our first glimpse of the Gobi desert which we had snuck into during the night.  A vast expanse of cracked, dry earth, the Gobi stretched behind us into the Northeast.  A few hours after dawn, we arrived at the Dunhuang train station and from there took a taxi to Charlie Jeung’s Café.  Dunhuang (meaning either “Blazing Beacon”, “”City of Sands”, or “To Flourish and to Prosper” depending on which wiki site you visit) is situated about a hundred kilometers from the politically volatile Xinjiang province and is an ancient stop along the Silk Road.  The city is built around an oasis that stands on the outskirts of the Gobi desert.  On our way to the café we passed through much of the downtown.  Dunhuang is one of those rare Chinese cities that has not been completely overrun by skyscrapers and poorly constructed tenament buildings, giving it a unique ambiance.

Charlie took us from the café to his hostel and on the way we saw what at first appeared to be low mountains to the Northwest.  As we got closer, I realized that the mountains were, in fact, gigantic sand dunes that rise up like a cordillera along the edge of town.  Charlie’s hostel runs right up against the somewhat dilapidated fence that is supposed to keep tourists from wandering up into the dunes without paying a fee, but gaping holes in the chain link belie this intent.

Sand-covered basketball court next to the hostel

After a brief rest at the hostel, Charlie took us to the home of a man named Li who would be our guide through the desert.  Li packed up supplies while we waited in his spartan bedroom.  Soon, he called us out to the side of his house where there were five saddled camels waiting for us.  The camels were all kneeling on the ground making mounting them a more simple process than with horses.

Our camels ready to go

Once we were all astride our respective animals, Mr. Li had them rise to their feet and led us on foot into the desert.  Along the way, each one of us gave our camel an English name.  Mine was Saunty (because he liked to saunter), Emma’s was Derek, Ciara rode Chester, while Arielle and Claire sat Mr. Kazoo and Achmed respectively.

The sun beat down on us as we made our way along the dunes.  Once we were outside of the town, I began to notice small cylindrical mounds of earth popping up along our path.  Some of these mounds we covered in brick and surrounded by large squares of raised earth.  Others had large sticks rising out of the apex of the mound.  I asked Mr. Li and he told me that these were graves for the people of Dunhuang.  The graves became more and more frequent until we were amidst a massive graveyard.

The graveyard

We passed through the graveyard and started up into the lower sand dunes where we stopped to make camp.  I climbed a small hill and saw a movie shoot in progress on the other side.  We spent the rest of the afternoon sliding down the dunes on homemade sand boards courtesy of Mr. Li.  As the sun began to sink behind the dunes and as the film crew and Mr. Li headed back into town, our small band decided to crest one of the larger hills to watch the sunset.  It took about twenty minutes to reach the top of what had appeared to be the largest dune for miles.  When we got to the peak, however, the expanse of dunes that spread before us made our little accomplishment look diminutive.

We watched the sun go down over the sea of rolling hills before running down the sandy slopes to our campsite where Mr. Li had already set up our tents and laid out instant noodles and beer for our dinner.  After dinner the five of us laid out on blankets underneath the sea of stars until the moon rose and banished all other lights from the sky.

The next morning was cold and the sound of Mr. Li, who had returned in the night and was now waking us up in time to see the sunrise, awakened me.  Though we had all packed long underwear and some winter attire, we still took advantage of the long, green, soviet-era PLA trench coats Mr. Li provided us.  After a light breakfast of bread and fruit, we saddled up and road back into town.

Us in our PLA coats and Mr. Li

When we got back to Dunhuang we took a taxi out to the Mogao Caves.  In Ancient times when the Silk Road was a bustling trade route stretching all the way from China to Constantinople, Dunhuang would be visited by nationalities of every stripe.  The Mogao Caves were half temple and half library, housing thousands of scrolls written languages as diverse as Arabic, Sanskrit, and Hebrew.  Over the centuries as different dynasties came and went, the caves were continually expanded with each new generation adding its own style and culture to the hundreds of caves.  Among the most interesting and impressive sights in the Mogao caverns is a pagoda which houses a statue of Buddha that stands (or more accurately sits) at over one hundred feet tall.

We took the English tour of the caves and fought through heavy crowds to gawk at the magnificent painted ceilings and detailed sculptures.  By the time we left the caves it was early evening so we returned to the hostel.  Since it was National Holiday, the hostel was full but Charlie agreed to let us sleep outside on what appeared to be an old basketball court covered in sand from the dunes.  After paying an exorbitant fee for the privilege, we set up the tents we had brought and spent a very chilly night camping.  My sleep was periodically interrupted by the muffled laughter of groups of travelers sneaking through the worn fence and into the dunes.  When I awoke in the morning and began to take down the tents, I found that the condensation on the inside of the rain fly had frozen during the night.

We took the taxi to the train station and said our last farewells to the Gobi.  We watched for the next several hours as the landscape slowly changed and desert gave way to hills and mountains, wind farms to rivers and streams.  Our adventures in the Northwest were unforgettable and I feel honored to have shared them with such amazing people.  I will remember our experience in the Gobi as one of the most memorable of my time in the Peace Corps.  My final thought on the desert is this:  Dunhuang has been given many names but if I am any judge, the most fitting has to be The City of Sands.

Categories: camping, China, hiking, travel | 4 Comments

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