Saturday, September 26, 2009

"Forest of Sweet Osmanthus."

"Take me as a grain of rice, husked and one among billions."
-Jerry Grandea
Well, part III begins. I have travelled to Guilin, well known through all of China for her scenery and magnificent vistas. The area deserves her reputation and China has eulogized her through the centuries in poetry, art, and song. "Guilin's beauty is the best under heaven" an adage says, and I am slow to argue, and slower still to forget.
I saw many things in and around Guilin, and will divide her stories in two. Reed Flute Cave was in Guilin. My short venture on a bamboo raft was as well, and so too were long bus rides up tall mountains through treacherous passes, and calming boat trips down soothing rivers. The city itself is pretty, with the river darting through and dividing, parks and paths and the famous hills surrounding, but it was beyond the city I spent my time and loved the moments and the air I breathed.
One morning I woke and hopped aboard a bus to visit the famed Dragon's Backbone rice terrace in LongSheng on LongJi mountain. It is one of the areas I most wanted to see in China. The terraces stretch far out on every mountain, manicured and perfect high in the hills, tops of mountains down to valley bases, steps and steppes for giants
to journey to their temples high above. I visited small minority villages, danced and sang in their celebrations, walked through their homes, corn and rice strung out on wooden floorboards or stone paths, or hanging in bunches like bouquets from the ceiling to dry in the sun. In one house an old man bent over the small family stove tucked in to a corner on the floor, smoke settling and sifting among the odor of the beams and dry wicker baskets, and that very smoke was all part of it, and could never be replaced.
As it is easier for me, I will do as I have done before and tell you only what I have already told myself.
Monday, August 10th, the year of our Lord two thousand nine.
"Today I hopped on a bus and did a day trip down to Longji to see the LongSheng rice terraces. They are the largest in the world, formed 700 years ago. The drive out was fantastic. We headed out of Guilin a few hours east in to pure country and farming villages. Men and women carrying bamboo sticks over their shoulders with buckets tied to each end walked the small roads, small palms dotted the rice paddies, swamped in water, and local farmers waded through working their harvest. The air and sky is much clearer out there and you could see the tall mountains surrounding endless farmland. It was glorious. Our bus rose and rose the narrow mountain road, a river carving down as we carved up. Chinese children played and swam in the river seeking refuge from the sun and humidity. Men waded through with nets or spears in search of food, ducking their heads beneath the river surface for long moments. The mountain too was beautiful and we had to switch to a smaller bus able to make it up the last steep and windy section and maneuver the sharp corners. At top we then had to hike the rest of the mountain, perfectly landscaped with old wooden homes built on stilts the villagers lived in. Chickens and ducks roamed about, free range food, and half-way up we stopped for lunch. I ordered the bamboo rice and bamboo chicken. It is well-known in the area. They take a hallowed out bamboo reed and stuff it with Chicken and sauce and spices and vegetables, then throw it on a fire and let it smoke over coals. They do the same with
the rice. The rice was good, but the chicken was delicious, tender and each bite a flavor of its own. I'll say it is the best meal I've yet had in Asia. I finished hiking the mountain and on top I had an aerial view of all the terraces, perfectly sloping and terraced down the mountain, interrupted only by scattered homes or small villages. It all looked like a well-manicured mountain ski resort town, small and green with summer. The whole walk up and down was filled with panoramic views of picturesque mountains and rice terraces and rustic homes.
On the way back we stopped at the Yao village, a small village of a Chinese ethnic group. They are outsiders, even the Chinese people have only been able to visit within the last ten years. The road to Longji was only completed in 2002. The Yao village is on the river at the base of the mountain. It is a matriarchal society with the women the definite head of the household. The men tend to stay in cooking and caring for the children. What the village is known for is the long hair of the women. The longest hair is 201 cm. I am about 186-187 cm (6'2''). They only ever once cut their hair, and only a portion of it once they marry.
You can tell the status of the women by their
hair. Single women always wear a wrap around their head, their husband needing to be the first person to see their hair. There was a ceremony at the village. It began with all the single women performing dances and songs. Then they grabbed four men, I the only volunteer. We each picked out a girl for our bride and they dressed us up and then we all held hands in a circle and danced about. After that our brides sang to us, then we sang solos to our brides.
Then we stood back to back and exchanged gifts. Then two of us went to the front of
stage and mashed their sticky, gooey rice cakes with long poles and we did toasts with our brides and were marr
ied and then carried our new wife on our back off stage, though in play the other girls chased me around from
side to side of the stage with my new wife on my back. It is custom in the village if they like you and want you stay
they pinch your bum. The harder they pinch, the more they like you.
To your bride, a man gently touches his foot to hers. All through dancing and the entire ceremony women were
grabbing my butt and pushing and banging in to me. It was a riot and now I am married, and of course those women already married did let down their hair for us all to see."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Where Sleeping Soldiers Lie."

"Soldier rest! thy warfare o'er, Sleep the sleep thast knows not breaking, Dream of battled fields no more, Days of danger, nights of waking."
-Sir Walter Scott
Finally, part two begins. I have been back now for a few weeks, and am once again enjoying the oh so unique thoughts and actions of Koreans in my little town. Someday I'll have to try and explain this all to you. It is both the joy, and frustration of living here. But for now, let me pick up where I left off. I left Bejiing after a week there and took an overnight train to Xi'an. The train was suppose to be about 11 hours, but really it was 16. I was lucky to get a spot on any train. Because of high tourist season, nearly everything was completely booked, and they had one spot left for the next 5 days. I took a soft sleeper, 4 bunk bed style cots shared with three others in a small room. There were three Chinese girls in the room with me, one who spoke some English, the other two spoke none. As the train left Bejiing late afternoon, I went out in to the narrow hallway sitting on a fold down chair and stared out the window at the country rushing past me on the rails. I sat for some time, befriended by my Ipod and the music I love, soundtracks of the many lives I try to live. A cute young chinese gal came and sat on the fold down chair the other end of the window, with subtle smiles and bashful stares. I began to talk with her, and soon discovered that she spoke English poorly, yet even with that, we spent many hours sitting out in hallway of the roaring train looking out the windows together, and chatting away about China and traveling and any small talk we could think of. Until late we talked, when her mother called her back in to their room, with some cautious and disapproving glares. Her name is zhaoshuo, my new Chinese friend. I stayed awake a short time longer and went in to my small cot and slept the few hours that I could, waking early and walking the halls before the train pulled in to the station. I met zhaoshuo again that morning, and as she lives in Xi'an, she offered to meet me outside my hostel that same morning and take me around the city acting as my guide. Sure enough, at 9:00 a.m. she was there at my hostel and acted the very gracious guide, taking me to the sites she enjoyed, the food she eats, and the stores she shops at. I don't know where all she took me to, but we entered in to many walls and palaces and parks, walked large waterways, meandered through small museums, stood high on towers overlooking the city that stretched out beyond the water and man made lakes surrounding the parks and palaces. We sat in shade from the sun, under folding boughs and willowing branches, talked on benches gazing out at the scenery of an ancient country. All through pathways of small brooks and statues and carvings we talked and walked in to the late evening when she dropped me off at my hostel to return home. She told her mother she was hanging out with a friend that day, telling me her mother would not like her hanging out with a foreigner. So we said our goodbyes for the night.
I met up with some gals from the hostel and we walked a few miles through the city to one of the famous pagodas in town, this one famous for its many water fountains. Dozens of water fountains, likely over a hundred were strategically places in grids across the slabs of cement walkways. Each night around 9:00 the fountains all begin to shoot off their water with lights and music serenading the shooting gusts of water that transform through colors, yellow, blue, pink, green, white, and the glow of the sky changes with the spray of stained water drops. Only at night do the fountains show their potential, release their purpose and become the fountains they were born to be, and the music celebrates them, the lights celebrate them, and the thousands of people crowding around to watch, join in on the revelry and gaiety, extensions of music and light and a hundred fountains that cascade up and fall down. It is a celebration for more than watching, but for frolic and play, and how many can resist the temptation of falling water on your skin on a hot night in August? Dance and play and sing and shout, and let the water know, let the night and the lights and the music and every bit of summer and all of China know that you are there in Xi'an dancing amongst the many in the largest water fountain show in the world. I came home that night and
slept sound in my hostel bed, and in the morning zhaoshuo met me, again telling her mother she was with a friend, though we had become friends, so it was no lie.
That morning we hopped on a bus and continued our new friendships and journeys out beyond the city to the famous Terracotta Warriors and Horses. These thousands of warriors were created nearly 2300 years ago, but only discovered in 1974 by farmers digging a well. Now, along with the Great Wall, they have become among the greatest treasures of a vast country rich in history. They are each created with their own face and features and armor and weapons, and stand over 6 feet tall, and the horses life-size, and arranged in proper battalions according to rank. They were created for the first emperor of China and placed around the palace made to be his burial, with his clay soldiers left in stance to defend his tomb so that even in death, this army of thousands would guard his sleeping body.
There are several pits and buildings housing the many soldiers, archeologists still digging and discovering, new soldiers fighting through the dirt to stand again in proper rank with their soldier brethren. These are the warriors of China, great and mighty, buried in dirt for thousands of years, now standing again. There are no duplicates among these men, each his own personality etched out through the clay. I have always wanted to see these warriors. I know my sister has always wanted to see these warriors, and so this visit was in great part for you dear sister, and while only one picture is posted here, many others I will show to you someday, when we meet again in person and share our many stories of time passed between us.
We hopped back on the bus and headed again in to Xi'an and walked the muslim quarter again, searched out food and shopped, and this my new young friend bought me gifts and food, and so refused to let me pay for anything, and our friendship will continue on. She stayed with me till night and left to rush back home and we said goodbye, and that night I also said goodbye to Xi'an, the next morning making my way down to Guilin. Most of my Guilin trip I will save for later. Today I will only speak of Reed Flute Cave. I took a bus from the hostel our of the city and up along the river to Reed Flute Cave, a large cave of stalagmites and stalactites lit with neon lights to create some surreal and other worldly planet, caverns of space, and the lights and stones drooping down reflecting off the water and the many colors looked like some spot in the galaxy, gazing straight in to space and the universe and science fiction movies where aliens creep and walk around. No aliens I did see, only myself among the many Chinese. At times I hardly knew myself where top and bottom was, each mirrors of the other wrapping around the mazes of stone deposits. After the cave I climbed up the mountain to gaze down on the river and the road and the other mountains around and at the bottom took a small bamboo raft, big enough only for myself and the boat man, though often I controlled the paddle, a long bamboo stick stuck deep in the water to propel and turn. We floated silently on the cautious water down to the bus stop and I returned back to the hostel to walk and explore this new city and the river that cut through it and the street vendors selling their food and hustlers out in search of naive tourists. For today, this should be enough to write.