Saturday, July 30, 2005

grass, miracle

I have become interested in bamboo. I know how this happened: it was an afternoon back in Thailand, in Chiang Rai. As the monsoon thundered on we stopped in a museum to watch a video. It was called 'the Miracle Grass'.
The video was shot in the early 80s. There were big collars, big hair and a giant hangar to house the bamboo scientists' modern computing machine. But it was great.
Bamboo, it turns out, is one incredible plant. It has both lightness and strength and is fibrous, so you can make just about anything with it. Fishing rods, ladders, baskets, badminton racquets, scaffolding, tools, medicine, fences, bins, water pipes, tables, paper, opium pipes, toothpicks, brooms, ploughs, wagons. You can eat it, you can eat off it, you can eat with it. It grows naturally on every continent besides Europe. The flowering of a single species takes place simultaneously all over the world. It grows in temperatures of -45C and +40C, at every altitude up to 4000m, and sometimes so fast - up to a metre in a day - that you can see and hear it growing. It is (and you'll have to imagine I'm standing in front of my giant computing machine here) the miracle grass.
A little later I heard from a source I can't now place (reliable then, for those keeping track at home) that in various East Asian wars the Japanese would torture their prisoners by tying them to the ground above a row of newly planted bamboo.
What a cruel but educational death this would have been. Can you imagine, as your spine slowly arched, thinking, 'good God this is agony, but what an amazing variety of grass'?
Yesterday, Kathy and I popped into a park in Chengdu built in honour of Xue Tao, a Tang dynasty poet whose hobbies were 1) poetry and 2) bamboo. Except for the poetry I think we would have got along.
Of most grasses there are only a few dozen varieties. In Xue Tao's park alone there are 153 different kinds of the miracle grass. Put that in your bamboo pipe and smoke it, pampas lovers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

yak heart and butter tea

On our fifth day in Litang (I know, we were supposed to spend three. I don't know how this happened. Honestly, there is nothing to do in town but admire cowboys and their varying degrees of camp) we rented a guide named Dornga and struck out for the hills.
To begin there was a car bogging and then an irritable taxi driver. That behind us together with a couple of hours walking, we came to a circle of grassland surrounded by mountain peaks. Among the yak herds were five or six black marquees, pegged down on all sides and looking very much like props from Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: the Tibetan plateau (in which Frodo fights altitude sickness and is rescued by Samwise - Richard Gere - who has bravely smuggled Tibetan dumplings and oxygen under his sixteen-gallon cowboy hat).
Each tent, Dornga explained, belonged to one herder family. Dornga herself was raised as a nomad, near the fabled* Shangri-la. In Tibetan her name means 'not great at English, but keen'. The first family to spot us invited us for lunch.
Inside, the tent was much bigger then it had looked from the outside (Lord of the Rings again. Or was that Enid Blyton? Whichever. Hi, Platty.) A stone stove had been built between the entrance and the four central poles. The rear was taken up with a basin, chests, dozens of pots and pans, a small shrine to the Dalai Lama and a battery radio. Sunlight cut through the smoke in a shaft from a gap in the roof.
In the shadows along one side two toothless old women lay in wooden beds. It would have been just like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory if Charlie's grandparents had slept with bead necklaces and prayer wheels - and nude. In any case I don't recall Dahl being clear on any of these issues.
After a full round of tashi deles (a useful Tibetan term meaning everything from 'Welcome to my home' to 'Thanks' to 'Please leave now') the oldest man explained that today was yak killing day. This was a relief, because otherwise it was going to be delicate referring to the enormous carcass draped over cross poles in the middle of the tent.
Beside the carcass, an uncley character was stripping stomach while another squeezed out goop from intestines. Two women were cutting up meat with a cleaver, two boy-monks were wrestling. (It has taken K and I ages just now to work out how many people there were in the tent. Not including ourselves, and counting grandparents, toddlers and everyone in between, there were 12. Not too many issues with the one-child policy up in the hills, then.)
The old man (yak killer in chief, as it turned out) was hunched over a cauldron filled with blood and bits. Peering into this soup of still-warm scarlet gristle I knew that if we were offered this, even as part of a cruel taunt-the-foreigner gag, we would not be able to say no.
We were instead plied with milk and butter tea (which is a Tibetan staple and tastes exactly what it sounds like) and offered the choicest cuts of fresh yak meat. To Kathy, the ribs (tasty, but very, very chewy - K). To me, the heart. I've never before eaten yak heart but I tell you, I like it. It's rich and not as crunchy as you would imagine. I understand this may prove an expensive taste, as apparently you don't get many hearts per yak.
Now, you might think the killing of your yak is the hard bit. Of course, you'd be wrong (silly). In the next three days the family will work morning to night cooking offal, salting steaks, filling sausages (this is where the blood soup comes in) and cleaning the hide.
This yak will feed them for the last few months of summer, during which time meals will be meat, butter tea, cheese, yoghurt and milk. When all this is gone, grandpappy will be sent out once more with a knife and a mission, and assuming he wins, it will be yak meat for winter (the alternative is unmentionable in Tibetan culture, but apparently no less delicious). No dairy this time, just lots and lots of yak meat.
And only so many hearts to go round.

*fabled, until the Chinese worked out how to draw tourists to something that doesn't actually exist. It's quite simple: you take an existing town and rename it after your place of legend. It was Zhongdian, now it's Shangri-la. Welcome, tourists! (You can try this at home. Goodbye Geelong, hello lost city of Atlantis! Bags me the first cable car contract!)

PS. There are a couple more photos next to some of last week's entries. So much more efficient than words, you know.

Monday, July 25, 2005


more Litang pixels (the man is real but the child had limpet genes)

Friday, July 22, 2005

a town of hoopleheads

Litang is the wild west. It's a town high on a treeless plateau in what locally is known as I can't believe it's not Tibet. The men look like Lou Diamond Phillips. They wear cowboy hats, long black hair (sometimes permed), leather jackets over ankle-length tunics, and mirrored sunglasses. The women have long black braids and over their tunics wear embroidered sashes and coin-studded belts.
Just outside town is a lamasery. The monks belong to the Dalai Lama's yellow hat sect, which in this part of Sichuan means they wear stiff yellow beaks on their foreheads, like they're set for a spot of blowtorching. When not at the lamasery they play pool, ride Harley-style motorbikes around town or shop for batteries.
When folk die here, they are farewelled in a fashion identical to western funerals except that instead of the kind words and cremation they are hacked to pieces on a mountaintop and left for the vultures.
I tell you, this is Deadwood. We have three days here.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

build a fake town and they will come

One of the difficulties in travelling in a big country is that there is more to see than you can reasonably make time for. Also, sometimes you may wish to see something (for example, a large snow-covered mountain) but you may be prevented from seeing that thing by poor weather or perhaps your own gimpy eyesight. Other times you might stroll through a stunning natural landscape or sleepy ancient town yet find yourself thinking 'I bet this would look better in cheap fibreglass miniature'.
In Lijiang they have solved all these problems. In one convenient paddock on a road out of town you can view all the attractions of the region - snow mountain, gorge, the town itself - in (yes!) cheap fibreglass miniature. For the bargain price of 100 yuan ($15) and just minutes from several of the actual attractions.
I swear, in China they think of everything.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

I'll get you Palin

You could explain this trip in a number of ways: tax evasion, expensive msg addiction, life crisis. Me, I like to thnk of it as stalking Michael Palin.
Last week in Tiger Leaping Gorge we stayed in a guesthouse (Mr Feng's) where the squat toilet overlooked a 4000m ravine. In Mr Feng's visitors' book we found that six months ago Palin had written, 'The best loo in China.'
One of the Pythons was here, I thought. How nice, cornerstone of British comedy and such.
Now a few days on we can't shake the man.
The latest episode was in Baisha, a village in Yunnan province just outside the heaving tourist town of Lijiang. Here lives Dr Ho, the self-styled Taoist physician of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. (I know, this is our second traditional Chinese medicine practitioner in as many days. I think it's the buses theory: you wait for ages for one traditional Chinese medicine practitioner and then two come at once.)
Dr Ho achieved local fame by offering free or donation-only treatment to Naxi folk of the region, then global fame after being featured in a 1980s travel book.
Among the illnesses he claims to be able to cure with his herbal potions - all culled from the nearby mountainside - are altitude sickness, asthma, rheumatism, various types of cancer and leukemia. Outside his clinic are dozens of photocopied articles, all about him, all making mention of his humility, generosity, attentive listening and so forth.
Now that he is 82 he is letting the first and third of these qualities slide away (as I intend do when I am that age, assuming that by then I have acquired these qualities).
"I am the famous Dr Ho," he said as we walked up. "I have been featured in many books, newspaper articles, television documentaries and a film called 'The Most Admired Man'. Inside there are many of these articles. Let me show them to you."
To me, there's something wonderful about this. You work for decades mashing tree roots into pulp for the good of mankind, never asking for more than a kind word in payment. Then, when you're old, you forget all that 'humble' business. Hello, it's me. I'm famous. You want to see?
When we had finished the articles (many) and our all-purpose healing tea (grainy) we were given a pile of guestbooks. So many visitors had there been to the clinic, there was a book for each country. Togo's was slim.
I picked up the pile and there on top of the lot was a page from a genial English chap, promising to recommend the clinic to all the other Pythons (although John Cleese had already been. His quote was, 'Interesting bloke; crap tea')

This happened to me once with Jane Goodall, where for weeks everywhere I went there was a Jane Goodall documentary on, or she was being interviewed on telly, or someone was trying to sell me her DVDs. I didn't know if she was haunting me or the other way round, but after a while I was dreaming of nothing but gorillas, mist and clipped English vowels.
I don't know if there is a moral of any kind to all this, but if anyone knows Michael Palin, tell him this: we're closing in.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Kathy and Dr Ho

Sunday, July 17, 2005

a dubious Tiger Leaping Gorge panorama (can you see the joins?)

Friday, July 15, 2005

three people we met this week

shoe guy

I'm walking along the cobbled strip in Dali the locals call Foreigner Street. There are little red books, T-shirts reading 'Chiang Mai, Thailand' and the aforementioned women hissing "Tapestry... ganja?"
Shoe guy is hunched on a small wooden stool.
"Shoe polish, you want?"
"I'm wearing sandals."
I walk on, but shoe guy has seen this kind of tactic before. He knows exactly what to do. He runs after me, grabbing my heel as I walk.
"Oh, very nice shoe."
"Thank you. Can I go now?"
"You want polish?"
"It's a sandal."
On the third day I decide to agree to a shoe polish, just to see what shoe guy would do with my sandal. As is the way of these things, he is nowhere to be seen. It's possible he is related to the man we pass later on our bicycles, who asks "You want to rent a horse?"

Ling Ping

Ling Ping is the 40-something daughter of construction workers from Hainan province. For years she worked in the mines, handwashing metal ore.
Now she has retired and followed her daughter to Dali, where she sells kebabs.
Through the unstretched (see below) Sean and Charlotte, we are invited to Ling Ping's house for dinner.
We meet on a street corner a little after 7:30. Ling Ping is well dressed and a little distracted. Her daughter Ling Na, it turns out, is a professional dancer. Ling Na is in a theatre performance which starts at 8:10. It's in a different town, but if we hurry we might be able to make it. Dinner plans are shelved. We catch a bus half an hour south to Xiaguan.
During the bus ride Ling Ping makes a mobile call by which she learns there are only two complimentary tickets. As the only non-Chinese speakers in the party, Kathy and I volunteer to sit out the show. In any case, unprepared for a night at the theatre we are in our travelling gear.
Ling Ping dismisses this offer, confident she can talk her way in. We take a taxi to the theatre, which is grand to the point of being almost black tie. Ling Ping employs the wiles that have sold a thousand kebabs. The bouncer is having none of it. He denies the existence of even the original tickets.
Defeated, we go for dinner around the corner. The restaurant owner is convinced we are Japanese. "Mishi mishi," he says, more or less constantly.
Over dinner Ling Ping tells us about herself. Among other things, we learn that people are stingier in Dali than in her home province and that she has locked herself out of her house.
While we wait for the show to end, she hands round her daughter's portfolio and discusses where she might spend the night. Cautiously, we let it be known that our place has only one bed. Several of the portfolio pictures feature what I believe is known in the trade as hint of nipple. We ask after the nature of Ling Na's acting experience. Ling Ping is evasive.
After an hour and a half Ling Na arrives. She is both lovely and clothed. It is established that Ling Ping will be staying with her in Xiaguan.
Sean settles the bill.
Alone and with the last bus gone, Sean, Charlotte, Kathy and I catch a minibus back to Dali. The driver avoids toll gates by bumping through the cornfields.

Mr Feng

Halfway along Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan province, across from rock mountains that rise 4000m from the Yangtze river, there is a small courtyard of traditional Chinese buildings.
This is Mr Feng's house.
Mr Feng likes to read. In the tradition of Manuel from Fawlty Towers he is learning English from a book. Before that he taught himself traditional medicine. He would like our Australian accountant, Bill, who believes health insurance is a scam because it doesn't recognise Chinese medicine. Bill also thinks that by 30 everyone should be able to afford their own house on Phillip Island, so there is a chance that he and Mr Feng aren't eye to eye on everything.
For years Mr Feng tended to the surrounding Naxi villagers who popped by with their tendon injuries, open hoe wounds and such. Then as the hiking trail became more popular he kept being interrupted by walkers lobbing weakly on his doorstep.
Eventually with his three teenage daughters he opened up a guesthouse, which features fine home cooking and a toilet view of one of the world's deepest gorges.
After breakfast Mr Feng takes us on a medical tour of the mountainside.
"Here there are many useful 'erbs," he says.
The cure for nettle stings grows alongside nettles. It is the leaf of the howjeh plant, which also helps stem bleeding.
The older villagers know all the local herbs, but with the climate changing as you move up, down and around the mountainside there is a lot of variety. Mr Feng has herbs from all around the gorge.
Rock cabbage cures stomach problems and nausea. The root of the martillia plant treats eye infections. The kormah leaf fixes up mouth ulcers. There is a red berry the medical use of which is unclear but which can be rubbed on your lips and tongue, leaving them tingling and numb for hours. It's a way to spend the afternoon.
As we walk there is a distant explosion, like one we heard the day before and assumed was thunder. Mr Feng explains it is a landslide crashing into the river.
"Oh good," we say, looking up at a mountainside of loose boulders and scree.
On our first day's walk Kathy has aggravated a sore knee. Mr Feng has had the same problem.
"It's fine when you walk up, it hurts when you come down, yes? It's okay, there is an 'erb."
He mixes a ground root called shinzintao with strong rice wine.
According to Mr Feng's prescription Kathy is rubbing it on her knee once a day, washing her hands afterwards as the mixture is alarmingly toxic. We will let Bill know how things work out.

lives, pixels: Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge

Thursday, July 14, 2005

keeps out geeks and Mongols

The blogging has been hampered lately. For one, the backend pages are almost entirely in Chinese, which is cumbersome, although pretty. Also, for the last fortnight we've been unable to view this page ourselves. This is because among the many websites banned in the People's Republic (BBC news, are most free blogs.To geeks this is apparently known as the great firewall of China (Hi, geeks!). So in China we're banned, but from within China, we can write what we want.
Here's a beginning: pandas are overrated. Hu Jintao has funny eyes. More soon.

lives, pixels: Dali, Yunnan

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

I have a new career ambition

We recently spent some time in the pleasant company of an Irishman named Sean, and his French girlfriend Charlotte. Sean and Charlotte have just finished a year's study in Taiwan, where Lost in Translation-style, westerners are apparently in high demand for infomercials. The key requirements for the roles are: 1, looking western and 2, being willing to accept large wads of cash.
Sean and Charlotte's infomercial was for a human stretching machine. At first this may sound like an obvious scam. In fact it is an at-home fitness machine machine that makes you taller, by stretching you.
Sean and Charlotte are both quite short, which at first made us wonder what they were like before using the machine. As it turns out - and here's the kind of 'insider' fact you get when you hang out with television people - they never used the machine at all.
In the infomercial, currently in rotation on daytime Chinese TV, you can see Sean and Charlotte's legs extending before your eyes. This is the magic of television. In real life their legs never actually grew (at least not unnaturally. I imagine it's possible that one or both of them coincidentally experienced a growth spurt on the day in question). Instead as they filmed the scene a man just off-camera pulled down their socks.
It's almost as if TV is deceiving people!

If I died before starring in one of these things I would feel life had been incomplete.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Play the popular kids' game 'Where's the Chinese Minister for Tourism?'

death by a thousand shortcuts

The more we travel by road in China, the more convinced I am that the last words I hear will be, "No need for that seat belt, it's safe here."
The road out of Laos is a thin tarmac track winding into the mountains. On the Laos side, it's more track than tarmac, but this at least has the advantage of slowing people down.
Not so in China, where a few hours in we pass a long white lorry. It's resting in trees below the road in what I believe in Chinese Buddhism is called the screaming fatality position (jackknifettartha).
Some time later we swerve at speed around a shiny black sedan which has tipped rather gracefully into the trench dug between the road and the mountain to help contain landslides.
None of this, nor the immediate aftermath of a head-on collision, deters our bus driver. Apparently, his mission is to conquer all the blind corners in China. Everyone needs a hobby.
At 8am fate intervenes in its occasional guise of small-scale rural commerce.
Approaching a town of which nobody ever seems to have established the name, our driver sizes up the mountain road and decides on a cross-town shortcut. We barrel down a sidestreet. As we descend to street level we round a corner and are brought up short by a line of parked trucks and dozens of trestle tables piled with melons and animal guts and giant eggplants. It's market day. Almost immediately the road behind us is swallowed by incoming market trucks. Donkeys are everywhere. There is no going forwards, no going back.
A local woman with a whistle shaped like a soccer ball marches Jericho-style around our bus, a savage glint in her eye. It seems that nominally she is in charge of local traffic operations. It's possible she is on day release. Either way her yellow whistle has never had so much use. She peeps away. Elsewhere there is excitement and pointing.
After an hour we find the driver of the truck immediately in front of us. The gap created looks just big enough for our bus to squeeze through. It's not. We get wedged against a wall. Rocks are used to help lever the bus into space. The rubber around the side windows peels away. The wall suffers. Obviously this is fantastic entertainment.
Around us the market roars on. The local Dai folk wear hair aprons slung over their backs. This helps protect their backs from whatever they are hauling: hand-painted bathroom tiles, steel pipes, globe-sized onions, an iron foot-operated sewing machine. Chickens are weighed, tied by the legs upside down. Squealing pigs are bundled into trailers. We're right next to the tent where you can drink tea and smoke cigarettes from huge bamboo bongs.
Eventually enough attention is brought to the enormous sleeper bus marooned metres away, and a few traders agree to move their stalls. In the course of three hours we inch through the market.
On the road out of town we're stuck behind a line of stall-owners' minivans and trucks. Somebody suggests bodily lifting each vehicle out of the way. This proves popular, especially with the 60 or 70 locals standing around. It doesn't work.
Finally, after more than five hours, the drivers of several crucial vehicles are found and encouraged to back a kilometre down the road. One truck spins its wheels for a moment, coming close to sliding backwards down the mountain. A part of me thinks this would have been an appropriate end to the morning.

Now, we're in Dali, a beautiful Yunnan city with stone walls and gates and women whose sales pitch consists of the phrase "Tapestry... ganja?" Nearby there is a set where they film the historical dramas that make up two-thirds of all Chinese daytime TV (the other third is for interviews with army generals). We're hoping to be considered as extras.