Saturday, August 23, 2008

Great Endings

My final day was awash in new goodbyes. In the morning I said farewell to my two older gentlemen friends, to Lily my helpful friend and interpreter, to my calligraphy teacher and classmates. I had a final meeting at The Nature Conservancy, further saying goodbye to the friends I had made there. There was dinner and visiting with Sunny, and gift-giving and address-swapping with my Meimeis. And finally: relaxing and joking with the hardworking girls & Mama & Papa at my hostel.

At my final meeting, TNC left me with words of wisdom:

Lijiang is a World Heritage Site because it has a history of accepting China's many cultures. The people of Lijiang learn from others, accept other cultures...they are very open minded. The new cultures coming in, whether "mainstream" or not, have been coming in for centuries. Lijiang is Master of Assimilation. And so, in this way, you cannot say change is bad. It's a process for the future.

This is so important to remember, especially as I reflect on this hub of change, preservation, and development. If you cannot prevent, you can at least effectively and efficiently adapt. Lijiang's been doing it for centuries, so why shouldn't it continue today?


As my time in Lijiang comes to a close--perhaps one of my most memorable summers ever-- I wanted to end with a favorite story from my time here.

After developing a second batch of photos for my new gentlemen friends, I headed back to their home to thank them for all their hospitality. My favorite Navy Blue Wonder greeted me at the door, immediately inviting me to sit in his chair, drink promptly-provided tea, and munch on locally praised sunflower seeds. Children filed in from upstairs, nodding to me in friendly there's-a-foreigner-in-my-courtyard! surprise.

As we chatted, I expressed my hesitancy to go back home; the elder gentleman agreed that yes, indeed, it was sad. Then, lightning quick, the kind sir went into a back room, returning with a small box. The box was a hazy clear, laying peek to a small figure inside. "Shangdi, Shangdi" he said, motioning at the box. He wrote it out for me so I could look it up in my dictionary:


Everyone has their God, he explained to me. Even in America, there is God.

I carefully opened the box as he handed it to me, delicately revealing the ivory figurine inside. It looked worn from touch, its cream color roughed around the edges with a brown musty dirt. The figure was Man, with arms outstretched, standing in confident omnipotence. His long hair reached his shoulders with dignity, and a long fur cloak stretched down to his feet; the coat's long sleeves draping his thin wrists in scholarly significance. Finally, an outstretched finger pointed to a worshipping audience. With mouth agape, this little figure, this little God, seemed to be teaching.

I began to wonder how old this figure was-- how long my gentleman friend had owned it, where he had gotten it, and how it figured into his Naxi ethnicity's belief in Dongba. Who was this God? There are so many Gods in this world, his world, which one was this? And, why was I priviledged to be the new owner of such a treasured item?

As I continued to behold my beloved gift, I turned the little God in my hand, inspecting every corner. There, at its foot, I finally understood. There, hidden at the bottom of this sacred symbolism, was my answer.


A plastic toy?!

There is so much you cannot know in one glance, so much that can be clouded with a little assumption.

Two days after owning my treasured gift, I now know a little more. This little revered God...
is wearing heels.

And has...

This little God... is Cruella Deville!

I guess it just shows: experiences need time to set in before you really can learn from them, huh?

xiexie & byebye!

Friday, August 22, 2008

T minus 2

Rather than schedule those last possible meetings (difficult now that my cell phone is out of minutes!), I resolved to spend my last 2 days in Lijiang calm and relaxed. And I’m so glad I did, because the morning rightfully started out with a bang.

This past Monday, I was supposed to meet two older men for a “picture hand-off” in the main square. I had interviewed them with Lily over the weekend, and had promised them printed pictures. However, because of Monday’s morning rain, the two men personally made their way to my hostel instead, so I did not have to walk through the downpour. So wonderful of them! Sadly, though, the pictures had not yet been printed, and they had to leave with only umbrella in hand.

For two more mornings, they trekked to my hostel. And, for each of those mornings, they were without luck; the pictures were not yet ready.

But finally, today they were.

Mama Naxi helped me call one of my picture-questing friends with the news. Thirty minutes later, there he was, all navy blue of him, umbrella-turned-cane in hand. I gave him the pictures, he smiled thankfully… then invited me to their home. How could I resist? I dropped everything I was doing and accompanied him on the 20-minute walk to their house.

As I followed the cute navy-blue 81-year-old, I was thrilled for the invitation. We left touristy Old Town, and went to where the residents actually lived. Calmer, greener, with pretty views of the rolling green hillside. I’m so lucky I got to see this part of Old Town before I left.

We arrived at a courtyard-style home—the most squeaky-clean abode I’ve been to in all of Lijiang. The floors were sparkling white, the flowers huge, the birds calm. I sat with Kind Navy Blue Man and his cousin, Smiley Beard Man, for perhaps an hour, chatting lusciously about little things now and then, but mostly sitting in comfortable silence while sipping Puer tea. I have a hard time just sitting when visiting with people. I feel like I should be talking, doing, inquiring. But, sometimes just sitting is the best way to visit; the company is all that matters. Especially to these men.

After picture-taking and walnut-munching (and of course, water pipe and well system-inspecting), they walked me over to another water source: a large 3-pit-well in southern Old Town. The men told me that in the past, when Black Dragon Pool ran low, they would often fetch their water here. In the background, in the third pool, women washed mountains of chives to be eaten later that day. (As it was morning, perhaps no one had yet done laundry, and vegetables were still OK to wash in the third pool). The women were loud, and green, green, green.

This really was old Lijiang, life away from all the tourism. I feel lucky to have been a part of it—if even for a few minutes.

I had my second-to-last calligraphy class today; I’m going to miss this place. While my normal little friends were not there this time (school starts soon—September 1), I really do enjoy sitting against the sunlight, with a teacher-offered pear in one hand, and an ink-sopped brush in the other, trying to avoid the stares of the passerby tourists (Chinese & Western alike). For me, this is stress relieving—I can sit in concentration for two hours (2 hours = 100 characters) and not even realize it. Definitely will be continuing this routine back at home, for my own sanity.

As I finished my characters, Mama Naxi (my hostel owner) popped her head in, her loud voice booming. She saw that I was getting ready to leave, and quickly invited me to go with her to buy plants for her hotel. I agreed right away—but when found out it would be a two-hour endeavor—politely declined. “OK, Fine,” she conceded. “But, I will take you to eat.”

Without really agreeing, I was whisked away, Mama Naxi holding my hand, laughing at me as she took me through the streets. We pranced through my favorite Zhongyi Market, then out to a Muslim Halal Restaurant. As we sat there, just the two of us, she ordered her favorite beef dish—Mama knows best. While delicious, Mama Naxi made sure that I ate my whole share of the tender beef in soup, fat and bones and all. (Thank goodness I had not eaten lunch! Though, I do believe that my next two weeks of meat-income is now taken care of.) This sort of hospitality just is Mama Naxi. Treating you to lunch at a restaurant that’s not her own, paying for a meal more expensive than at her place, laughing and shoving food in your face until you threaten to explode (through hand motions & facial expressions, but not words, of course.)

And so, I waddled home.

Hospitality at its best hurts.

Thursday, August 21, 2008


A Naxi insult I learned

A Naxi grandma comes up to her friend.
--"Do you have the cards you promised you'd bring me today?"
--"Euuhh, I forgot."
--"Ah! 3 generations of your mommy!"

I have NO idea what it means, but it is quite the insult! Resulted in some hearty laughs.

Some Dongba Poetry
Sayings provided by the Dongba Research Institute.

Plow the fields before you are hungry,
Dig the well before you are thirsty.

The Yulong Mountain towers into the sky,
The Jinsha River winds round the earth

There are lofty pines on the mountain
Because there is nurturing water and soil.

And my personal favorite:

Trees in deep soil will not fall,
Wells in fertile valleys will not dry.

The Naxi have a history of bountiful resources. It really is reflected in their overwhelming trust that Nature will Provide.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Weaseling my Way into the Water Company

OK, it really wasn't weaseling.

It was more of asking my friend Yana who graciously asked her mom to graciously call her friend who graciously drove us to the water-supply company, sat around, then graciously drove us to the wastewater treatment company, sat around, then graciously drove us back home.

Thanks, new pal!

I wracked my brain to remember everything I could about water supply & sanitation systems... settling chambers, filtration & sterilization units, activated sludge processes, blah, blah, blah... and battled with the language constraints preventing my questions to reach our personal tour guide.

It's amazing how much diagrams & pictures can communicate things, even across language barriers.

I-- with no water supply-related language skill,
Yana-- with just a handy cell phone dictionary but no background in water supply, and
A Water Company Employee-- with no previous experience in answering science-related questions (Now what chemical do you add in this process? What are your standards for turbidity?) from two chatty young girls in their twenties.

And yet, diagrams & pictures helped the ideas make their way across all these extremes. Pipe drawings, schematic systems, percentages... diagrams & pictures not only help explain ideas in mere English, but across so many language and background barriers. They certainly worked today to get the ideas across--across experience, nationality, language, background, age, & gender borders-- sans even words. I am a continued fan. And my notebook, full of informative arrows, boxes, and markings, proves it.

Company does not have a specific target number for supply they have to meet. And, the water that they do source is paid for. So,A couple things come to mind from our visit: the Water Company deals with water from Qingxi Reservoir and Yulong Snow Mountain. (Qingxi Reservoir has its own springs, Yulong's water comes from the melting glacier.) Since people access their water in Lijiang either through wells, through the public springs, through heated rainwater, or through the pipes--the Water when I asked what typical water demand was per capita... I got some confused looks. Likewise, when I asked if they were worried about the Yulong Glacier significantly depleting (global warming)... again some frowns & lowered voices. I didn't really get a straight answer from Yana--language barrier I think--but from the tone of the voice, and the look on the face (facial expressions shows all avoidance)... this seemed to be a touchy subject.

Nonetheless, it was quite a "normal" day at the Water Co hydrological data I would have likedmpany. Still, despite this normalcy, I felt quite proud to have gotten myself there! (Thanks, Yana!) Perhaps I'll never get access to the historical records & (NO WAY would they have allowed that!)... but I got in the door--and for me, that is enough!

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Wedding Celebration

I wish I had pictures to accompany this post, but alas, I just enjoyed and didn't worry about picture-snapping this time.

For all of its local culture and heritage, Lijiang is also the perfect host to the ephemeral traveler, a network of tourism. And, for all the booming development that it brings, tourism brings a wealth of hospitality, outgoingness, and fun, as well.

Recently, I made friends with Sunny, a cute nine-year-old in my Calligraphy class. Her parents, kind people, invited me to dinner last week--they spend every summer in Lijiang (for the past ~10 years). Lijiang really is their second home.

Tonight, we had something special to celebrate. Sunny's English teacher, a young Australian-Chinese guy, was getting married! Here was the ultimate expression of traveling romance. Two months ago, on a planned year of traveling abroad, he met a girl from Xian, also vacationing in Lijiang. They both extended their stay, and are now getting married. Sunny's parents, in wonderful Chinese hospitality, threw a huge traditional wedding bash for them tonight. Horse riding through the streets, anklets with bells on both bride and groom, thousands of red roses decorating the courtyard. Table full of food (all made by Sunny's dad), bountiful wine, a colorful cake, and many, many friends--mostly travelers themselves.

The evening involved a small ceremony for bride & groom (the bride wears a red cloth over her face for the first bit--much like a veil), then the banging of a gong, the kiss, the popping of balloons, the throw of the flowers, the hoots and hollers of the crowd, then eating, drinking, watching Olympics (girls gymnastics), playing with babies, & teasing & laughing.

As we munched away on the glorious banquet, just my luck: I took a bite into my jiaozi (dumpling) and crunched on something hard... a silver coin! As per custom, my good fortune meant I was supposed to perform a talent. In front of Everyone. Woweee. Chanting began, Jia you Jia you... Common Common! I couldn't get out of it.

And so I took a deep breath, and performed.

Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers
A Peck of Pickled Peppers Peter Piper Picked...

Obviously-- they didn't really understand my tongue twister; I guess my talents weren't really on par tonight. Nonetheless, being the pretty American, I got a round of applause all the same(& a boyfriend proposal). It might be superficial, but at least I have that lao wai (foreigner) thing going for me!

Black Dragon Pool Revisited

Interviews are still going well--though we have to compete with the rain for the Lijiang Elders' time.

I visited Black Dragon Pool again, this time more knowledgeable about its water source. There are several springs where the water pools up out from the mountain. Bowls relax along the rocks, for thirsty passerby to quench their thirst. People come to fill their bottles with the free water.

I drank some of the water... very delicious! And I don't think I've gotten sick from it, yet...

And--here is another picture from our daily interviews. These women were willing to talk to us. There are songs about the water that Naxi people sing... though they were reluctant to sing them for me. I don't blame them-- I'd be embarrassed too!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Little Whirlwind

Things are going well... especially because I finally started to interview Naxi Elders!

My friend Lily (Naxi ethnicity and Lijiang area native) is helping me as an interpreter... and it’s a win-win combination. As she runs tours in this area, it's important for her to know local culture and history, so that she may tell accurate information to her tour-guides and guests. On my side, I could do nothing without her, her Naxi+Mandarin+English abilities, and her comforting personality. As she chats it up with the Grandmas and the Grandpas, I feel like I’m not doing any work!

As I haven’t had enough time to really reflect on the 2-days worth of interviewing we have done... here are just a few things I've noticed so far.

In some ways, this interviewing is easy. Most elder Naxi women wear the traditional blue hat, blue shirt, maroon vest, and black and blue apron over black pants. A melding of mostly blue and black, they then layer this look with the sheepskin cape that protects their back from heavy loads, and that keeps them warm in the cooler temperatures. All in all—very easy to recognize. The elder Naxi men, too, are quite easy to spot. Lounging back on benches, cane in hand, & often with long beards a-pipe a-suckin’, these men are waiting targets for our questioning goals. Most elder people in the old town delight in a relaxing life nowadays. As they love to congregate together to relax and have fun—it’s easy to know where we can find people to interview. In the morning, they stroll around Black Dragon Pool for exercise, and in the afternoon, they dance in Sifang Square… or play cards or sing songs or chat amongst themselves or laugh at the little kids or—as of now—entertain us in stories of their childhoods & water, as we all perch on benches among a big shady tree.

Oddly enough, the men are much more eager to talk to us, while the women are rather timid about answering questions. While I at first assumed that the boisterousness of Naxi women in society would lead them to giving all the answers—this doesn’t seem to be the case. While just speculation, there seem to be some reasons for this. First, these Naxi women are very modest; many say that they do not know anything worthy of such structured questions. Second, because they spent so much of their lives working hard for their families, they maybe did not spend much time thinking critically about where there water came from, about the history of water in the town, etc. Third, they might be less educated than the men are, and so perhaps less critical or opinionated about the ongoings in this city. (Please remember though, these are just speculation.)

This oddity has led to some barriers in interviewing. While I believe Naxi women hold a wealth of knowledge in how they accessed water for their families in the past compared to now… their hesitancy to answer questions permits this information from reaching my ears. Through easy-going liao tianr (chatting), they have no problem divulging these sorts of clues…yet when we politely wonder if we can ask specific questions, or have their permission to record their voices (oh, IRB!), this fluid conservation shuts down, and an ending nod of the head and a referral takes its place.

Still, despite barriers, there is one thing in particular that I find stunningly interesting. Through our conservations, we’ve learned that very few of the Elders (aged 60-80+) believe in the Naxi Dongba religion. In the past, Dongba priests taught people to protect their environment through ritual, but after the Cultural Revolution, the number of Dongba priests SEVERELY dropped. Many Elders said that when growing up, their home villages had maybe two or one or none Dongba priests, and this number is continuing to decrease today. More specifically, according to the Dongba Research Institute, there are only 9 true Dongba priests alive today (though I need to fully confirm that number). As true Dongba-ism is passed down father to son—a veritable religious inheritance—the disappearance of the Dongba religion is all too present.

So, instead of religion and ritual teaching these current Elders as it had past generations, environmental & water protection was bestowed to them "from generation to generation." And, since today even this “generation to generation” tradition is not being passed down, without religion to back them up, the younger generation no longer has a comparable "code" to live by. All in all: a gradual loss of environmental protection among the Naxi people, (though I'm taking it to extremes here to make my point, of course.)

Now, it’s time for me to be a little lame. Ideally, I wanted to draw a diagram to illustrate this idea... but that just doesn't work on Blogger. So, an equation will have to do---

A = Passing down Tradition from Generation to Generation
B = Dongba Religious Beliefs

A + B = Why Past Generations took care of their water
A = Why Elder Generation takes care of their water
ZERO = Why the Younger Generation is not taking care of their water (+ impacts of tourism and immigration of course!)

TA DA! Problem Solved! …Yeah right. But you can see how without the buttress of religion or tradition, the younger Naxi generation does not easily protect their environment as they had in the past.

This makes me wonder though: what do the Elders think they can still teach the younger generation? And, why aren’t they doing it—have they lost hope? Each Grandma/Grandpa we interviewed said, “The older people always told us that…” and to them they listened. And So, my question is:

Are they being those same wise older people to their younger inheritors of beautiful Lijiang?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

About Town

In addition to my meetings, other wanderings include continued Calligraphy class, hanging out with 11-year-olds on Sundays, being asked to be an English teacher for a girl named Sunny, hanging out with my Meimeis (sisters) at my old guesthouse, conversing in Chinglish with the girls that smoothly run my hostel (...You know, it doesn't seem so odd to me, in this seemingly women-run society, that most of my friends are girls!), and watching…hearing…reading about the Olympics.

Calligraphy class—four lessons later—is a great routine to my day. Always at 2pm, I greet the same kids, sit in the same seat, and practice the same characters. I still don’t know what I write, but I’m excited as my hand becomes more composed, the lines less wobbly, the strokes more defined. Always at 4pm, I wonder what we’ll eat in the market—perhaps er quai, a ricey dough fried with spice, or maybe liang fen, fried greyness made from chickpeas and soaked in soy sauce. All are delicious, save perhaps the pig’s-stomach-rice-blood-sausage I weaseled my way out of eating the other day.

On Sunday, after my intellectually-stimulating morning at the NGO Green Watershed, I spent the afternoon in a rather lessened “smarty-pants” environment…taking silly pictures and buying pretty stationary with my 11-year-old friend YunYu. Younger people have so much more patience and delight in the simpler things I can communicate; it’s relaxing to hang out with her. Although, I cannot remember the last time I was invited to play with Barbies.

I politely declined.

When I have time, I stop by my old guesthouse to play with my Meimeis there (the lovely models of the photos you see). Every now and then another little pengyou (friend) is there to play—and so picture-time is of the essence. Often they invite me to a delicious dinner as well: Yunnan potatoes sumptuously covered in chili-sauce, fried chicken, similarly-chilied cold cucumbers, stir-fried mushrooms, tomatoes and eggs… I can hardly resist.

My hostel, Mama Naxi’s, runs like clockwork. (And, it’s the perfect example of tourism mixed with Naxi heritage.) The three girls that work there work HARD; it never seems like they get any rest. 6:30am wake up, make breakfast for the picky foreign guests, explain to them the tourist options of the area, book plane and bus tickets for them, make their beds, do the laundry, clean the toilets, serve the tea, feed the cats, shop at the market, throw out the trash, deal with the foreigners again, prepare dinner, clean dinner, serve the tea, balance the books, tell the foreigners to get to bed, 12:30pm go to sleep themselves. Day in and day out. I asked one such girl—who I believe will soon take over this business, her knowledge of the ins and outs of this place is impeccable—when she gets to xiuxi, or rest. It doesn’t seem like ever, really. And for their sacrifice, they reap in the benefits. Backpackers from all parts of the world flock to their abode… helping Mama Naxi make a wonderful killing.

In true Naxi form, it’s the women that have the brains and stakes in this business. Last night, I sat with aforementioned next-in-line girl and Mama Naxi, as they balanced their account books near midnight. Pens to the paper, fingers to the calculator—both thinking intently. Papa Naxi, on the other hand, was walking back and forth around the common room, sometimes stopping to watch the current Olympic match, sometimes filling up guests’ teacups, sometimes kicking a cat out of the way. At one point, he asked Mama a seemingly inconsequential question, and she snapped at him—definitely putting him in his place! Naxi women may work hard, but they really do have the money-making glory to call the shots around here.

I like it!

And here... are pictures of making paper with Yana & Dongba store priests (are they real if they sell goods?), LONG overdue:

Monday, August 11, 2008

A New Plan


In light of my 11 days left in Lijiang (gasp!), and my most recent interviews and meetings, I have slightly warped my research aims & goals while in the Gu Cheng.

Basically, I want to better align my research, so that it is different from what has already been done.

I will TRY (keyword!) to harness:
  • The STORIES of Naxi Elders (the Significance, History, Use, & Access of their Water)
  • The STATUS (the Good and the Bad) of Lijiang's Water Infrastructure (Governmental Department & Water Company implemented)
  • The ALARM of upcoming Water Depletion, Glacial Melting, and Water Contamination
Wish me luck! The days are ticking way. It's my own Olympic Countdown...

Visit to the NGO: Green Watershed

The weekend was busy. The day after my meeting with the professor, I met with Green Watershed—a non-governmental organization that helped me as a liaison to Lijiang during my grant-proposal-writing-process. Once again, I learned a great deal even though my time at their office was short. I detail my learnings here…

Green Watershed, founded by rockstar Yu Xiaogang (a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize), is located in Lashi Lake, a water source to Lijiang. One of their staff members—a young Social Worker who is just hands-down awesome—accompanied me to their office. After a bumpy one-hour ride, picking up villagers as we made our way (geez, with 70-year old grandpas in the back gripping to the edges of the minibus-turned-pickup-truck), we arrived at the home-converted-office, just on the edges of beautiful Lashi Lake—a watershed on the Wetlands of International Importance list.

Talking with the staff (shown here) was stimulating. All were young, mostly in their twenties, perhaps one in his early thirties. And, most were students or graduates of Social Work. I think it's wonderful how interwoven social work seems to be with environmental issues here. It makes sense—being invested in the needs of communities goes hand and hand with environmental protection, even here in China.

In a 1998 drought, over 300 cities in China found themselves without water. This alarming situation elevated the water issue in the country, kick-starting a heightened need for watershed management. In 2000, Green Watershed, also known as the Participatory Watershed Management Research and Promotion Center, stepped up to the plate. Eight years later, they continue to do amazing capacity-building work, which is utterly community-based.

Recently, much of Lashi Lake has been dammed, disrupting the local people’s way of life. To combat this, Green Watershed works to restore the residents’ livelihoods in a sustainable manner, and educates them to know their water rights. As the context of Lashi Lake represents a multitude of problems to be learned from, Green Watershed implements a diverse array of pilot projects in the area. They hope to learn from their experimental capacity-building projects, to then replicate them in similar situations across the area and country. Start small, grow bigger, smarter—a wonderful idea.

Green Watershed’s programs are multifaceted. They involve Watershed Management Programs, including a Water Resources Protection committee and Fishers’ Association, Microcredit Programs for the women of the area, and Education Programs also for women and children. The programs are participatory and community-based. Over and over again, the staff mentioned the words capacity, capacity, capacity, the local peoples’ voice, voice, voice, the local people making their own decisions, decisions, decisions. They do not assume that each village surrounding the lake is the same; each has their own priorities on what they want to protect. And so, Green Watershed makes sure the local people decide for themselves what they want to do. By increasing the people’s capacity for decision-making, increasing their awareness for local environment protection, and increasing their strength to SPEAK OUT for their personal and environmental rights—Green Watershed comprehensively works at capacity building.

One such fabulous example is a pilot program in Xihu Village. The dam on Lashi Lake flooded their land, forcing them to move uphill for living and cultivation. This uphill land was not as fertile, not as rich as their previous soil. Likewise, by cutting down trees to make way for their new environmental-refugee'd home, their deforestation prompted landslides, disrupting the ecosystem and destroying their new homes.

All in all, a lose-lose situation.

In response, Green Watershed helped them plant fruit trees along their hills (though the people themselves could decide what fruit trees they wanted to harvest), so that they could make a healthy income while protecting their area from landslides. In doing so, the NGO hopes the local people understand the grand intersection between livelihoods, protection, and development—showing them that they can protect their environment while still making money. It seems to be working pretty well.

So… where does Lijiang come in?

In 1994, Lijiang found itself without water—in a big, fat drought. To prevent such a situation from occurring again (common, tourist money depended on it!), they dammed Lashi Lake and diverted water through newly built aqueducts to Lijiang’s Old Town. THAT was why the people of Lashi Lake had their lake dammed, their homes flooded, their livelihoods changed. Because of the tourists. The dam flooded the local Naxi and Yi peoples’ land, forcing them to move uphill and disrupting their way of life. The damming changed the environment, so much so that it changed the people’s interactions with their environment—it changed their livelihoods, their tradition, their culture.

So—my tourist self, and the millions of other fellow tourists that frolic here, destroyed the people of Lashi Lake’s way of life. Great.

Now that their homes have been flooded, as a result of this booming tourism in Lijiang, people have adjusted their livelihoods—but they are not as productive as they once were. Further, many villagers move to the Old Town, trying to make a living off the booming tourism industry. Young girls come to work in this Disneyland, perhaps relinquishing their education to make money. Life just isn’t the same; Lijiang has profoundly impacted the Lashi Lake Watershed, and all the people living in the surrounding area. Lijiang’s water problems, thus, are not isolated—they are wide-reaching, and thus all the more alarming. Once again, the unknown scale of impact due to Lijiang’s actions is frightening. No scientific studies, according to a staff member at Green Watershed, have been done of the Lashi Lake Watershed. How long will the ecosystem continue to survive against these changes? We don’t know. And that is scary.

Tradition and New Livelihoods

I asked a staff member about the significance of water to the Naxi people. Did Green Watershed take into account this traditional importance of water within their projects? Yes, and no, was the answer. There have been attempts in collecting the stories of the villages’ Elders—most specifically in a really great Children’s Book (that they gave me a copy of!) entitled “I Love Lashi Lake.” The illustrated storybook was written by local elders, detailing traditions and stories for the younger generation. The hope is that children in schools will read the book, and learn about their great inheritance. But, unfortunately, this is really not the case. These stories of elders are not getting passed on very well; the keeping of tradition is very weak. “Isn’t that SAD?” I asked. Sad, the staff member replied, but REALISTIC. Despite attempts to preserve traditional culture, it is not remembering the past that will put food on the table, that will prevent their land from continuing to be flooded as Lijiang needs more water. Time must be spent on supporting livelihoods, not revering what once was. Again, the same idea as from Helpful Professor #1: an acknowledgment of culture’s importance, a try at preserving it, and an eventual relinquishment to focus on more strategic ways of moving forward. Sigh. It’s realistic, but still depressing.

So, while Helpful Professor #1 said that “perhaps tradition still works in the villages, but not in Lijiang”… I don’t really see this to be the case. Even here in the villages, tradition is getting lost. Even here.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

HP#1 continued...

Collected and Reflected!

I've had some time now to go over my notes and reflect on my meeting with Helpful Professor #1. Here goes...

I again lucked out. I had been meaning to call HP1 for a week now, and yet always found some excuse to not do so. However, exactly when I finally did call... he was going to be in Lijiang the next day! What are the odds! On Saturday I met with Mr. 1 to ask questions, investigate his vast knowledge in Naxi culture, and implore him for more contacts & suggestions. We had a lovely chat, and I left scared of how little I know and how much I have to do in order to do something "different". So much has been done to study Lijiang already. It's a hotbed for research, really. Where am I different?

A couple of initial cultural things. Perhaps I never mentioned it, but Lijiang and the Naxi culture are famous for their “3-pit well” system. At natural springs throughout the Old City, the Naxi people constructed 3-welled water systems, with strict rules for their use. In the first well, people could drink the water, without fear of contamination (in the past, that is). This water then flowed to the second well, where people washed their vegetables. In the third and final-linked well, people could wash their laundry. Keeping these rules preserved the quality of the Naxi people’s water and was—at one point—respected by all. (Today, those that use the system still respect it… but these people are few in number, and the wells themselves are not very well maintained.) In addition to the 3-pit well system, in the past the day’s drinking water was to be fetched from the canals before 10AM every morning. Only after this regionally-known time, the daily cleanings of vegetables, laundry, etc etc etc could take place. It was taboo to go against such a rule.

In the past, rules were imposed by the village committee, usually a collection of “in-the-know” Elders. Education came through Ritual. Through ritual, people learned what to do, what not to do. Unfortunately, today this no longer happens. A lesser spiritual connection among the younger generations, a diminishing number of Dongba priests, and the constant flow of mainstream and outside cultures accounts for this disappearance.

The overall idea I got from our meeting: culture is utterly important, but that does not mean much in the reality of things. In Lijiang, the retracing of traditional footsteps will not work alone. The reason? Lijiang has developed too fast, too unchecked. Its population of the Old Town has changed. Out with the Naxi to the New Town, in with the immigrant businessmen to the Old. Traditions are lost in this simple migration—the historic significance of water & its regulations walked out the door. Immigrants are not careful in their new, unfamiliar home. Additionally, the steady flock of tourists makes restaurants and hotels construct innumerable wells, lowering the water table. Increased water demand leads to increased water waste. You can see that there are many reasons why tradition just wont work any more.

Last year Black Dragon Pool dried up. (This is supposed to happen about once every 10 years; now it happens about once every 3 years.) The shock was oddly a good thing. It shook the people into realizing what they were doing (if only for a little bit). Remember those prayer flags & incense sticks I saw at the Black Dragon Pool—confused as to why there were there? They were from the earlier drought—people had realized the significance of their water, and had gone to pray for it to return. So, despite everything, religion still has a minor presence, though it might be the type that only happens if something kicks you square in the seat of your pants.

All in all, Lijiang is too “past its time” to just rely on returning to traditional ways of doing things. That is na├»ve & idealistic to think. Rather, you need a mixture of traditional with spiritual with governmental with education with awareness. Government regulations need to restrict the amount of building that happens right against the water source. Scientific studies are needed to figure out what exactly can be allowed for water quality and quantity to be maintained, how many wells Lijiang can build, how far their buildings should be away from the source pool, how scalable the impact is of even the most minute actions. This unknown scale is, too me, the most alarming.

What is needed, really, is a new ethic. You cannot just tell people to believe the religious side, and you also cannot just impose harsh government (or even economic)-imposed rules. People have to follow more of a moral code for this to really have effect. And yet, that moral ethic cannot be imposed either. So what do you do?

I don’t know.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

HP #1

As I begin my more in-depth interviews, I think I should maybe stop revealing personal names and resort to more "professional" allocations--

such as Helpful Professor #1, Cute Grandma #2, Government Official #3.

Today-- I had an amazing meeting with Helpful Professor #1. I'll sort out the details of what I learned for you later (though I do know now that Edward Norton's father does consultation work here, and the famed actor himself has made many a trip to enjoy Lijiang's beauty.) Prime info first, huh?

HP#1's experience & wealth of knowledge made my head spin... making me realize how little I know, and how much more time I want to put towards this "investigation." I'm one small little thought in the sea of this indigenous knowledge & water rights concept-- and I'm trying to figure out how my own research (or what I'll make of it) will even mater.

More, much more, later.


I wasn't even in Beijing, but the excitement was huge. On 08.08.08 morning, as I sat drinking my Nescafe & writing some professorial emails, I got bumped out of my seat to a fellow hostel guest with a huge TV in his hands. "Will you move please? I want to watch the Au Yun Hui (Olympic Games)!" It wasn't even 10AM... over 12 hours to go.

As the sky grew darker, TV channels changed, faces looked hurried, & transient tourists slowly migrated to Lijiang Old Town's main screen in the central square. Red flags flew back and forth as people chanted a Chinese wallop of excitement. And of course, in the background, Naxi grammies were still enjoying their evening circle dance--their stereo-blasted local music competing with the main screen's Olympiad tunes.

The Oohs and Ahhs were typical of any brilliant light-display event (who knows how much energy went into those spectacular Opening Ceremony light shows, holy cow!) but the fervor & excitement was very particular that night. Their country was hosting the Olympic Games. The pride was wonderfully pervading.

After about thirty minutes of the extravaganza, I walked away from the bright lights & cheering to meet up with my friend Marie, who I had run into by accident on Lijiang's busy streets. An old friend from a student leaders conference I attended in Taiwan last October-- thanks NU's Center for Global Engagement & National Chengchi University!-- Marie and I agreed that it really was a small world. Since she had Olympics-protesting leanings, we ignored about an hour's worth of the 4-hour ceremony to drink some Dali beer in a non-lao wai (foreigner) restaurant.

After saying goodbye to my friend, I walked down the empty streets to my Mama Naxi's hostel. It was evident that the Games were finally in full swing--everyone was tuned in to watch. As I skirted over the smooth cobblestones of my little Lijiang Gu Cheng, utterly in China, China, China... the sound of bagpipes wafted through the air, trailing me no matter which way I turned. How very odd and un-China-like this music was, despite my very China-like setting! I slowly found myself wondering a very scholarly & globalization-reflecting question: Why on Earth did the Beijing Olympic procession of athletes have constant Scottish bagpipes playing?

Just kidding, really. About the question.

As I walked home, the multitude of Chinese TV-sets broadcasting Western tunes showed that on this night, without a doubt, Olympic pride was on high.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Today is Chinese Valentine's Day

And Today, a failed meeting started my morning.

I was summoned to The Nature Center to meet with two people this morning, only to have the meeting canceled upon my arrival! No problems though, I reorganized myself with a morning snack of Naxi baba.

This afternoon, I once again trekked over to my Mao Bi Xie XueXiao (Calligraphy School) to join the kids in daily practice. I sat with my 2 new friends, and was utterly doted upon. The teacher calligraphed me the most beautiful rendition of a postal address I've ever seen, a little girl gave me a sign with "Beijing 2008 Olympics" in her hand-drawn Chinese & Dongba characters, and police officers, taking a break from the long work day, came in to sit and stare at my scribble-scrabble. The lao shi watched while take puffs out of his long pipe every now and then (PS: this tobacco pipe is as big as a 5-year-old kid.)

As I sat near the window of the school, I myself became a spectacle. Just as I, as a tourist, would look at these kids doing calligraphy and "oohh and ahhh" at the Chinese-y ness of it all-- I get the same treatment. Intrepid Chinese tourists, venturing from the shopping streets to this lesser populated part of town, poke their heads in to stare at my hand. All ask-- does she even know what she's writing? Answer is mostly a big NO. (Though I do have a reaffirmed interest in learning to write Chinese characters now.) It's a little nerve-racking to get stared at, but it makes you focus all the more.

After class, two new young classmates--a Naxi and Tibetan girl--took me into the market to treat me to all the wonders of Lijiang food. They are THRILLED to take me to eat (again, the Chinese hospitality) and bounced out of their chairs when I said I'd still be here for 2 weeks. "Just think of all the things you can eat!" they oozed. The girls are wonderful. So, I guess, in addition to my old Naxi grandma friends in their 80s, I have friends in their 10s and 11s and 12s. They speak in rapid motion, never really slowing down to make sure I understand. Nonetheless, their patience is dumbfounding; they don't mind repeating things maybe once, twice, thrice. I'm lucky they're so outgoing and kind. And, I wonder what we'll eat tomorrow.

Dinner was spent with friends I had made at my old hotel. I chatted with my Meimei and tried to console her in her love turmoil. Today is Lover's Day--Chinese Valentine's Day--and a suitor of 2 years tried ONCE AGAIN to woo her. Oh, the agony! She moaned (in the typical girly Chinese melodramatic way), asking me to tell her what to do. Red roses, a day at the park where he showered her with gifts... what's a girl to do?

Back at my own hostel, I asked the owner--Mama Naxi--about water here in Lijiang. She shed new light on my current knowledge... apparently, even 5 years ago, the water in the canals was warm. You could bathe in the canals even on a winter morning and not get cold. However, now this is not the case. Why? Today, Lijiang's water comes from Black Dragon Pool AND Baisha village. Half and Half. The water from Baisha village comes from the Snow Mountain, the water from Heilongtan (Black Dragon Pool) is from its own primary spring. This mixing dilutes the warmth of the spring.

30 years ago, you could drink the canal water, Mama Naxi says. (And this is from experience--she's lived in the Old Town for over thirty years.) The throws of tourism have dirtied Lijiang's water; it is no longer the same. Now, no one drinks the canal water. Rather, it comes to them through pipes... though still from Black Dragon Pool (or at least, that's what I think she said). [But, I still want to know, how is the Black Dragon Pool water cleaned?! It was so dirty when I saw it! Oh my, my gums & teeth are depending on it!]

Another clue from Mama Naxi: in 1983, all the water in the canals dried up--even from the Black Dragon Pool source. Some smart & indignant Lao Mama Naxi (Old Naxi Mamas) went to "complain" & "plead" (though these are my words) with the source... and just like that, the water started to flow again. I will have to find these Old Naxi Mamas and ask what they did: who did they talk to & what did they say to warrant the spring to provide water again? Unfortunately, my Mama Naxi, the hostel owner, doesn't know what they said. Most Naxi people, she tells me, don't know about Dongba culture. It's separated, not common knowledge. I wonder, then, how a seemingly "elitist" belief--of water protection, love in the Shu Spirits--translates into common practice.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Slow but Comfortable

Phewwwww. Another exhaustive 2 days!

Yesterday I again tried to meet up with my Naxi lunchdate friends... to no success. I slurped my noodles alone, chatting on and off with a man who wanted to show me "around town."

On my walk back, I poked my head into the Calligraphy School once again. The Lao Shi ushered me in, plopped me down at my own desk, gave me a mao bi (brush), a piece of paper, and put me to work. While my strokes against the paper looked as perfect and at home as a dog's muddy pawprints on white carpet, it was exciting to sit in the classroom, with my new 10-, 11-, & 12-year-old classmates. As I tried my best to copy my teacher's red instructive marks, his top 2 students (talkative & helpful girls of course!) always made sure to get me back on track when my hand fell astray. By the end of the lesson, my teacher was teaching me the characters for "water canal," and explained that in addition to calligraphy, his profession was surveying in Lijiang's Old Town. Perfect! Perhaps, in addition to his Shu Fa (Calligraphy) talent he knows more about the rough geographical ups and downs of this little city.

Today, I spent the day with my new friend Yana, volunteer at The Nature Conservancy's Nature Center, sophomore student in Environmental Science, and Lijiang resident of Naxi descent. I am so lucky to have met Yana. Not only is she kind, patient, (& speaks good English!), but she studies environmental science because she wants to come back to Lijiang and help make their environment more sustainable, healthier, better. She also wants to study the Naxi Dongba culture that she claims heritage to. (Perhaps the perfect solution for an interpreter? I asked her to help me, and she's excited!)

Interestingly, Yana is only half Naxi. Her father is Naxi, her mother is not. And yet, because it is her FATHER who is Naxi---she calls herself Naxi. (Unlike Louis, the student at the Dongba Cultural Center, who is not Naxi because his mother is Naxi.) In typical Chinese style, Yana fed me until I EXPLODED. We ate rice cakes in preparation of another breakfast feast: fire-baked baba (like a big fat pita), chickpea jelly (a spicy grey goop--pretty delicious actually), and stir-fried potatoes with pickled cabbage. Let's just say that it hurt to walk... especially since we were walking to our next food destination! This Chinese hospitality always seems to be the same, whether in Taiwan, Hong Kong, & the Mainland, or with my aunts in Canada & with my mom at Home... it's always eat! eat! eat! These are my kind of people.

In addition to popping our heads into Lijiang's famous stores, we made paper with Dongba priests (in a tourist shop of course), and asked the meaning of the Dongba wheel of life, which is centered around a frog. In Dongba legend, the frog (qing wa) was the first being to "jump" into life, and since then represents good luck and harmony. To be honest, Yana did not even know the meaning--despite being Naxi herself! You can see how much is being lost as generations evolve, though this has sadly been true in history since... well... forever. As Yana does not look Naxi, many people even mistake her for a tourist, completely sidestepping the fact that she is from Lijiang. Additionally, because she cannot speak the Naxi language, people make fun of her for not taking advantage of her special cultural heritage (my own dis-knowledge of Cantonese feels for her). She wants to learn though, hoping to study Dongba scripture after university.

After paper making, we took a cab to Shu He town, about 10 minutes away. Naxi people lived here before they made their way to Lijiang... the buildings and outline of Shu He's Old Town looks the same, similarly crisscrossed with gorgeous canals. However, the water here, unlike Lijiang, is crystal clear. It does not hold the trash, mud, and other crusty pipes that Lijiang's canals do. Yana says that Lijiang's canals used to looked like this--refreshingly clean--before the tourists came.

You can see why the canals system worked so well: Water right to your doorstep. Hassle-free, always clean, in with the good and out with the bad. If you live here, you appreciate it--you keep it clean. Tourists don't feel such things. As their transient hands throw food remnants, cigarette butts, and toilet paper into the seeping flow: Goodbye clean water.

I was mistaken-- people do not drink the water from Lijiang's canals anymore. Instead, drinking water comes from water company-provided pipes (or from small wells) and goes on to treatment plants. The canal water, however, still gets diverted from the Jade River, provides a flow where people can wash themselves, their vegetables, their clothes, & their streets in, and then shoots its now contaminated-self back to the river. I wonder if any cleaning happens before the canals' muddy muck rejoins the river. Yana also pointed out the cleaning system in Sifang Square, the main meeting space of the Old Town (and home to the old Marketplace years past). In the morning--though not during the rainy season--wooden planks are placed in the square's main canal, blocking the flow and forcing water through a byway into the square, cleaning the streets. The diligence locals have in keeping their streets clean is amazing; Lijiang really is a tidy place.

As you can see: my learning is slow, but comfortable. Tomorrow restarts the chatting, making friends, & feeling my way through who knows what--so that I can learn more of what I set out to! (And now, I can make friends with the hope of returning with Yana, my new guanxi.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

55, 63, 71, 82... the ages of my new Naxi friends

The past couple days have been a wonderful reintroduction into Lijiang after my 4 day hiatus. Returning to my slowly familiar town, I was more chatty, talkative, inquisitive.

It’s interesting.

Hanging out with foreigners for four days actually made my Chinese better. I became the translator for the gang, and they oddly trusted me… maybe because I pretended to understand every time people spoke to me, maybe because my Chinese really is progressing-- I think the former: my Chinese really is atrocious. Nevertheless, by traveling around with others relying on me, I had to talk more, be more boisterous, more confident. And it worked.

On Sunday, with Shani, my friend from Israel, I went into a Calligraphy school in Lijiang's painting square. The lao shi (teacher) was so kind, rushing around his studio showing me pictures of the other foreigners he has taught, patiently yet excitedly showing us how to paint characters. Despite my multiple tries at “calligraphy” as a kid in Chinese class (this involved writing one & two & three over and over again, interspersed with drawing disease-struck bamboo & ladybugs), I had no idea that the starting element to calligraphy are the eight quadrants. Eight blank and lonely quadrants. A thin paper sheet with squares is used to practice on—each square is divided into four more squares, and each quarter square becomes two triangles… voila! 8 triangular quadrants. The goal is to imitate a given character, “cong yi dao wu” (from the first to the fifth quadrant), “cong ba dao er” (from the eighth to the second) and so on, following an already-painted character’s strokes. (Sound confusing? I'm even skipping the hardest part—learning how to hold the brush perfectly vertical and only move your wrist!) I asked to take lessons from him each morning.

After our visit to the painting school, Shani and I went to the Zhouyi Market, oddly untouched by other tourists, and sat down to an intriguing lunch in a little darkened hole across from the market's fish area. As we slurped our sour & oily noodles, I made friends with the Naxi women sitting there. They taught me to say things in Naxi language, such as:

Do zey = Hello
Bu ga muo = Goodbye
Gyei = Water

That is, if I heard them correctly. I learned the most important words, huh?

The women were sweet, laughing at us, chatting us up, continuing their banter to my nodding but un-understanding head. One woman (was her name Hou si hua?) lived in Lashi Lake, a gorgeous lake just outside of the city; she offered to take me there. And the other woman (maybe her name was Heuh Chueh Xiao?) and I made a lunch date for the next day. When she saw us again in the market, she wrapped my hand around her shoulder as we took this picture:

Ahhh, I finally made Naxi friends! It was invigorating.

On Tuesday, I went back to meet my friends for Lunch. Unfortunately, when I arrived, the cook told me they had just left, so I left plans for a later meeting. As I was leaving the market, buying some lychees and plums, I struck up conservation with the women selling fruit. I’ve made fun of my half-Asianness before, but I really think it helps people get comfortable with me (and maybe because I don’t walk around with a huge pointed camera!) Their questions about where I am from, bets if I am Chinese, response when I answer that “Yes, wo mama shi Xianggang ren” (my mother is from Hong Kong), all seem to show a general interest in me. They are just as curious about my background and what it represents, as I am curious about theirs. It’s mutual, and I like it.

As I was buying my lychees and plums, a smiley woman came up to me—friends of the fruit seller. Naxi women are very comfortable, even proud, of their age. Without even me asking, the fruit seller proudly stated, “I am 55, she is 71” with smiles and slaps to the knee. The 71-year-old, elegant in her stripey-green Converse sneakers and blue felt vest, with the traditional Naxi sheepskin cape & navy blue hat, patted me on the shoulder, saying “I am going to Si Fang Square to Dance. Come, I’ll take you.” Without waiting to see my response, she walked off, expecting me to follow. And follow I did… why miss this invitation! She sped through the streets, all maybe 85 pounds of her, taking me through back alleys and over bridges so much my head spun. I pummeled her with questions, and she just laughed at me, offering choice answers. She said she danced everyday, both at 9 in the morning, and at 2 in the afternoon. She also said she was from the Mu family (which I’m assuming is the same ancient ruling family of Lijiang). When we passed the Mu Family Palace on our walk, I asked if her Mu was the same Mu… she nodded, laughed, and pounded on a pillar. Perhaps that means yes?

When we entered the main square, she deposited me on an umbrella-ed bench, next to another elder Naxi woman. My dancer friend took her place across from us, along with her other sun-capped fellow dancers. Other Naxi elders were slowly flocking in, also coming to sit on the benches, or on stools in little circles. And of course, as always, other tourists—Chinese, Western, young, and old—waddled through the square. My bench partner was a sweet 82-year-old woman (I do believe that was the first thing she told me, and defiantly so). Her ears were droopy with the traditional silver hoop earrings of Naxi women, but with a green jade stone also linked around each hoop. (I later found out that this decoration marks that a woman is over 80-years-old, another symbol of pride in a woman’s age.) Through her two cute teeth she mumbled in Chinese to me; while I believe she spoke Mandarin, there was no way I could understand her accent. Still, we bonded over my non-pierced ears and her pierced ones, her Naxi-style crinkled skirt and my dirty blue jeans, and my offered lychees & sweet plums. I thought about my own Chinese grandmother—similar in age—and compared their similar yet utterly different crudely-structured life stories in my head.

Something else interesting I saw? Rather than just throwing the bits of lychee skin and seeds onto the ground, my new two-tooth-full friend held them in her hand. Only when the woman sweeping the streets came around, did she throw the trash away—into the woman’s mobile dustbin. How I wanted to ask her why she did this: why did she not litter, why did she try to keep her city clean? What were her thoughts about the water canal just 5 feet away, and how had it provided for her family for her 80 plus years? What did she think about these tourists when they started to filter into her hometown? And—did she even think about these sorts of things, or take them for granted?

These questions, this hesitancy, this barrier… this is where I reach the lower limit of my Chinese skills, and the maximum limit of my frustrations. I have been able to get comfortable with so many people here… becoming friendly with them, getting to know them, feeling trusted by them and vice versa (or at least I hope), sharing and receiving with them as they do with me… but then my language skills falter and I cannot find out what I hope to. How easy it would be if this was in English! Or, even in French! I’m not asking for much, just slightly deeper comprehension—but that seems months, even a year away. I am stuck with the skills that I have (and yet thankful that I have at least some).

The problem is, though: having an interpreter would not be the same. The otherwise-helpful sidekick companion would make things too structured, uncomfortable, artificial. With an interpreter, someone unfamiliar beside me, I feel people would not tell me things. A couple I met, students from Beijing’s best university: Tsinghua University, told me how lucky I was to do a student project abroad. They say that this sort of thing never happens in China, the idea is not known; no wonder people are confused when I say I’m doing a project here. While I could easily find an interpreter through my many connections, I feel that their aid would be ultimately futile. I’ve learned from my mistakes, too. In Cameroon, when I did this sort of project, I went from meeting to meeting, overwhelmed with formalities but in the end not getting anything worthwhile. I didn’t learn, just copied, and what is the use of that? What is the use of formalities and methodology when you don’t have the friendly connection & sharing first?

My proposed plan of visiting and interviewing the city’s Water Authority, and methodologically interviewing local Naxi people—farmers, shop keepers, restaurant workers, hotel owners alike—now seems a farce, almost insignificant. Such a proposed project would be for a later date, after my Chinese comprehension has gotten better, after my own familiarity with the people and the city had reached a comfortable plateau… perhaps after two months or more. And there is not enough time for that. So I have to decide—what is better? Methodological yet shallow data, or fuller yet more spontaneous and haphazard learning? As this is a student project—prone to obstacles, new pursuits, and limited knowledge, yet filled with a wealth of new learning and excitement—I am hopeful that my professors and grant-givers will forgive me! The scale of the project that I proposed, while I once felt doable, is seeming more and more like a long-term undertaking. So--I’ll just do the best I can now, to meet everyone and learn everything I can, in my own way… and while I have the time. Maybe this week I'll just meet people. Next week, I'll ask the questions.

Tiger Leaping Gorge & Shangri-La

I've just returned back to Lijiang from my trek to Tiger Leaping Gorge, home of the Jinsha River (tributary to the Yangtze river), the "mother" of Naxi culture. What an amazing couple of days.

I've wanted to see Tiger Leaping Gorge for a long time, both for the amazing views, significance of water to the area, and the threat of a dam being constructed in a few years. I have always been mystified by the famous brush paintings of historic China. The deep black ink against the thin rice paper, of rough, rugged, yet still delicate mountains. Further, my childhood fascination with the Monkey King story (of Journey to the West, and ancient Chinese favorite) resonated with this exciting climb through the hills. In fact, Journey to the West itself is a reflection of the transfer of Buddhism between India and China: the transmission of ideas flowing through these very mountains... just like Lijiang's own history.

I met Nafsika, Nancy from Greece, at a cafe I typically frequent (quiet, delicious tea, great place to work; in fact, people know I come here so often they leave me messages at the counter, knowing that the note will get to me). Nancy was heading out to Tiger Leaping Gorge alone, and I seized the opportunity to go with her. I really am so lucky so have met her-- she even invited me to her birthday celebration the following day. Little did I know that meeting Nancy introduced me to the world of the "Lonely Planet Backpacker," the clump of friendly yet diverse travelers that make the Chinese landscape their romping playground. At first I was skeptical of hanging out with "foreigners"--but I'm so glad I made the decision to go.

Shani, Liat, and Yarden from Israel, Nancy from Greece, Lincoln from Australia, and Moira, Martin, Guillame, Charline, and Gwennole from France became instant friends. What I love about being abroad is all the different people you meet, who are also out of their own context. All are eager to laugh, share, and learn. We took a minibus from Lijiang to Qiaotou, the entrance to the gorge. Early in the afternoon, we started our hike in the sun, up hills, along fields, across rocky surfaces, to the top of a mountain. 3 hours later, we were looking down: the entrance of the green gorge. The next 5 hours were blissful. Careening rocky surfaces, little waterfalls, beautiful flowers, villages & crickets here and there. Along the rocky cliffs, I could even catch a glimpse of their water system here. Look, canals! We stayed at Halfway House, a lovely guesthouse along the gorge (and famous for the best views of a toilet anywhere in the world-- I'm serious. You see this picture of the mountains? You could see this from the stall!) After waking up to the sun peaking behind the jagged snow mountains, we enjoyed another day of hiking. In the afternoon, we commemorated the end of our trip by gorging ourselves on infamous Yunnan potatoes, local mushrooms, and a mixture of tomatoes & egg.

After the trek, I followed the crowd and took a chance quick trip to Shangri-la, a Tibetan town made famous by James Hilton's "Lost Horizon." (Its real name is Zhongdian; it changed its name to Shangri-la for the tourist appeal.) Everything looked different here. The higher elevation changed the landscape, turning cows into yak, Naxi-designed houses into Tibetan-designed buildings, illustrative Dongba characters to fluid Tibetan script. Shangri-la is similar to Lijiang, in that it had an old city with cobblestoned streets, surrounded by a larger, newer Town. A monastery overlooks the town from is perch along the mountain side. It's interesting to be so close to Tibetan culture, while still being so far--so far that is because of the current tourist ban. It was great, too, to see the mix of other ethnicities that reside together in this little (though definitely still touristy) town. And of note, as well: Yak meat is yummy.

Despite getting to explore this new distinct yet similar town to Lijiang, my favorite part about the trip was the people I met. In the course of 4 days, I had made 10 wonderful new friends, from all over the world. More specifically, I had an amazing experience with my new friends from Israel, on their own long adventures through Asia. Imagine that. Here I am on my engineering research adventure in China, and I'm learning about Shabbat, the kibbutz, what it's like to be in the Israeli army, and the inspiring Jewish views on life. On Friday, we celebrated Shabbat dinner with Liat & Yarden (from Israel, on a 10-month excursion through Southeast Asia after leaving the army), Shani (on a relaxing yet exploratory vacation from her art therapy work in Tel Aviv), and Nancy (on a long adventure though Asia before she moves home to cozy Crete from busy Athens). I was overwhelmed by the takes on life I learned from these people. The giving, sense of humility, love of life, love of people, love of calm and enjoyment. It was overwhelming, fascinating, comforting. For our special dinner, after a day at the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, we bargained for vegetables at the market, used broken Mandarin to buy our bread at a local bakery, sang Hebrew songs to the background of a Chinese war movie, and gleefully ate our food together with chopsticks, just us in an empty Chinese restaurant. All in celebration of Shabbat, the day of rest.

Sababa! (Cool!) L'chayim! (To life!)

Now, it's time to get back to work... more relaxed, refreshed, and eager to learn & meet new people!