Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Reminiscences Of Our Weekend

Reminiscence Of Our Weekend.

Inspired by On the Road, Jack Kerouac.

Lashihai, Yunnan, China 
After a week of working hard in the backyard of the Green Education Center, digging up hills, burying trash mounds and moving piles of cement left behind by workers, Brandon and I decided we needed a bit more of a break. The only thing we could do other than our normal once a week trip to Lijiang was to stay the there overnight, make an evening out of it, try to find adventure, new friend as well as other things, and hanging out without worrying about having to make it over the hill into Lashihai in the middle of the night.

It was Saturday and we started the day by going to a school for orphans to give a presentation on the importance of recycling, sorting garbage properly and the use of Bio-gas. The kids were great, and much more pleasant than the kids of the public middle school we went to two days later, the Monday when GEC was flooded with students from Yale University and Yali Middle School form Hunan. We were invited back anytime to spend time with the orphans who spent most the year within the gates of the school.

After the presentation we drove further into town to purchase a cargo tricycle for GEC from a small trike dealer down an alley of fruit markets and mechanics. Before our director Chen Laoshi handed over any money I made sure the owner tightened the loose hubs as well as raise the saddle to fit Brandon and myself. After pedaling it down the alley and getting aquainted with the dual crank-lever and foot brake we were given the keys to the GEC compound and Chen Laoshi's blessing to deliver the new trike to Lashihai. We later found out that some previous interns had apparently been drinking one day and crashed GEC's previous electric driven cargo trike into a ditch, totaling it.

It was the first time either of us had ridden a trike. It moved surprisingly swift for having one of us sitting in the cargo hold while the other swerved in and out of the cars along Changshui street heading out from Lijiang. We got some good looks from folks as they drove by, and we even tried calling out to people about a foreigner for sale for fifteen kuai ($2.50)

Chen Laoshi and ourselves figured we could get up and over the hill with one of us pedaling and the other pushing. It ended up being a pain no mater what which way, and so we just walked it to the top. Then, I was pleased as punch to get to ride it down the hill into Lashihai while Brandon gave us momentum sitting in the cargo hold. Only facing backwards so he could see the cars as they barreled down the hill after us. Just coasting down the hill at first with a shit eating grin on my face, I even started pedaling faster after a few vans zoomed by on out left. Still smiling I noticed the front wheel the dealer tightened before we left the shop wobbling away. Brandon looked over the railing and saw us swerving ever closer to the drop on the side of the road as I was leaning into all the curves down the slope. 

Once getting it back to GEC I parked it right in front of the office to show off the new toy to the other staff once they got back. We got ready to ride our own bikes back to the city for a night of adventure. Just as we were started back up the hill, the other way this time, we were stopped for just a moment by Chen Laoshi, Liu Laoshi and Sinan who were driving back to GEC. They were used to tourists in the area, also used to bikers and interns, but for a second it seemed that after three weeks of our presence at GEC the sight of us still left them surprised and perplexed.

Rolling down the down the hill into Lijiang is so much more exciting. Lijiang is about 100 meters below Lahihai, and so long as there are no large trucks ahead blocking traffic you can get some great speed racing down into the valley. Passing cars on the right on the straights or cutting into the on coming lane to pass mini-buses on the wide left turns with a clear view of on coming up hill traffic. 

Once winding through the final curves at the bottom of the hill into the valley we decided to take a road north to check out the Old Town in Shuhe. The road was brand new and huge. Three lanes each way, which was great for biking on as it was more or less abandoned by other traffic. The cars that were there were also free to take up two lanes, drive 70mph or even choose which side of the median they wanted to drive on. Although the road free from traffic there were plenty of workers. Men and women on the shoulders pouring cement, lining up curb blocks and finishing the median landscapes. Brand new bus stops were also being built. Each bus stop looked like a gate into a temple, which fit the scenery nicely because ahead of the long, wide, flat road was a clear view of the snow topped Yulongxue mountain. 

The reason this brand new highway was still abandoned was that it didn't lead anywhere but the small town of Shuhe. Further up the road heading west back toward Lashihai was the second half of this road being built. It would slowly ascend up pillars to a tunnel that would lead into Lashihai and take them straight to Shangrila, the fabled land the from the Lost Horizon novel that later started a race for near by cities to officially changed their name as to attract more and more tourists each year, Han-ifying and degrading the pristine, undeveloped west of China.

After finding nothing special about Shuhe Old Town we biking to it's larger twin, Lijiang Old Town, and headed to Prague Cafe, our new regular spot, and from the demographic of Lijiang's Old Town, 99% of which are tourists, it seemed like we were some of Prague Cafe's only regulars. They have great cheesecake, good food and ok coffee and beer, all for a lot more money than we'd be willing to spend in any other city we've lived in. But as we had no need to spend any money Monday through Friday at the GEC we didn't mind splurging. They also have a cute wait staff, a great selection of books and magazines and an atmosphere that makes it easy to loose hours sitting, talking, eating and drinking. Once I hit the 100-120 kuai mark ($20~) I know its time to go.

In Lashihai we were only 90% sure about staying the night in Lijiang, but after Prague we were set on getting a hostel and staying the night. We knew of International Youth Hostel close by and decide we could go there first, drop off our bikes and head back out to meet some folks. Four-dorms were cheap, and we were able to lean and lock our bikes up behind the couch in the common room. But it was still just the two of us. We wanted to see if we could meet anyone at the hostel who was also planning on going out. 

Brandon thought he heard English being spoken on the third floor so we went up to check it out. There was one guy standing outside of his door over looking the Old Town at night. Without hesitating a second I greeted him and inquired if he planned on going out at all that night. I usually would have been a bit more timid while approaching a stranger like that, but we had a mission that night, and after three weeks of no contact other than the GEC staff and each other we were desperate to interact with new people. It was no time to be timid. This guy was named Fernando and he was from Portugal. He seemed to be in his mid-thirties and spoke great English. He had just gotten back after a long day of traveling and was planning on getting up early in the next morning to go to Tiger Leaping Gorge north of Lashihai, and so he was not going to do anything other than sleeping that night. But we still stayed and chatted with him a while to pick up tips and tales from a fellow traveler. Ends up he was on his second leg of his second trip around the globe. This time he started off doing a loop around South America, up through the west coast of the US, flew back to his home a Lisbon for a fortnight or two and continued through Europe, Russia and into China before he heads into South-East Asia. When I asked him which was his favorite of all the places he had travelled and I didn't know what to expect. But I was surprised when he said it was the southern most tip of South America, Chile and Argentina. He described it as a nature reserve. During the day he could go about without seeing another soul, while at the same time seeing such an array of wildlife and plants the likes of which he'd never seen. 

As I see more and more the world I see how small it can really be. I can only imagine after going around the globe twice the world could seem as tiny and beautiful as a wee marble.

We wished Fernando good luck and safe travels, then went down stairs to seek more company. In the common room at a table next to our bikes was another pair of travelers. To break the ice I asked them where they got they bought the beers they had on the table before them. We quickly followed their directions to the cooler in the hostel lobby, then returned with a few bottle of beers of our own and asked if we could join them. It was perfect. Here was a Japanese and a Frenchman trying to practice speaking English with one another, and we were two English speakers trying to speak with anyone. Both of them had been working/living/traveling through much of South-East Asia, but this was both their first time to China. We offered our expertise on the country based on our months of being here, and they told us tips and tales of Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. They had both been staying at this hostel for a few days and so after a few hours of chatting they knew we would soon be kicked out so the common room could close. It was decision time whether to call it a night or leave the hostel and brave one of the tourist bars on the tourist bar street that was lined with identical cookie-cutter tourist priced clubs that were filled with tourists.

Although Brandon and I have only been here three weeks, and we certainly were outsiders, we didn't like being clumped in with the other tourists. We lived here. At least we lived in Lashihai, which was now home to the ethnic Naxi people who were pushed out of Lijiang by the ever westward moving Han ethnic group and the tourism industry they brought with them. And its not enough that the Naxi were slowly pushed out from their ancient city, but now each day people from Lijiang who want to get away from the city for a day come to Lashihai to participate in yet another brand of tourism, horse guided tours, led by each able bodied Naxi male in a village. The horse manure has become a constant source of pollution on the streets and in the water of their own community, but they have no alternative ways to earn a living. One aspect of Brandon and my internship at the Green Education Center is to conduct a case study of the negative impact on the Lashihai eco-system and local culture by the tourism industry. Brandon and I are not tourists. 

Tourists or not we went to the bar street anyway. But it was surprisingly empty. The streets along the way that were filled during the daytime had only shopkeepers closing down their stalls for the night. There were only two other tables with people within this huge club. We were quickly flanked by staff talking about the drink specials and trying to make new foreign friends. But we had no interest in being friends with them or by being hustled by them anymore. We already caved in and bought a bottle of whiskey and six soft drinks for 400 kuai ($60) and the six soft drinks weren't even Coke or something to mix with the whiskey, it was iced-tea!

Me and the Frenchman Pierre had an easy enough time pretending not to speak English or Chinese. Brandon spit out a few French phrases he learned from his mother when he was a boy. So finally the young and excited waiter turned to the Japanese, Ryouta, hoping to get some sort of response in Chinese, but was once again halted with another language barrier.

After hours of playing Liar's Dice, a mixed Nanjing/France rules version, with each person taking a drink from the bottle as a penalty, we finally finished it. By that time it was just us four in the bar with two of the workers also sitting at our table waiting for us to finish so they could close and go home. It was almost 1:30am and that is when the hostel locked its doors. We walked through the ancient city of Lijiang back to the hostel and got there just two minutes after the closed the door. They workers inside were still awake and were obliged to let us in. Brandon's and my room was on the second floor and Pierre and Ryouta were on the first. Our goodbye was very short and emotionless. It just goes to show when traveling you can meet a multitude of people and become great companions very fast, but when it is time to go your separate ways, your relationship with each other can seems almost meaningless. 

The next morning we woke up around 10am, which is sleeping in by our standards. Although we don't have to work on the weekends at GEC, we feel pretty useless while the other staff are awake making breakfast and cleaning Saturday and Sunday mornings. We lost our 10 kuai deposit on the room plus had to pay an extra two kuai for two beers we got the night before. We didn't have exact change at that time and they couldn't break an hundred kuai bill. Brandon found out the week before while trying to buy an ice cream with an hundred kuai bill that they would just give it to him for free.

We left the hostel and headed to Prague Cafe again. My head hurt and my stomach was sore and I needed coffee and food in me before we rode back to Lashihai for a day of work making food and beds and cleaning up in preparation for the students from Yale University and the Yali middle school that were coming to GEC the next night.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great story bud. Felt like I was there. Good stuff bud!!!