Our hotel emptied out. The regular breakfast buffet, included in our room price, shut down during the official three-day holiday. The front desk provided a simple boxed breakfast instead. Before New Year's Eve we shopped to make sure we had plenty of goodies on hand, but it turns out that supermarkets in our area stayed open even during the holidays. Paul and I spent New Year's Eve doing what most Chinese do, some 700 million or more around the world, based on last year's figures. We watched TV. Every year since 1983, Chinese TV has presented a glitzy gala. We started with a half-hour of world news on China's English-language CCTV news station. We watch the news most days. The station presents timely news that matters, rather than simply news that happens to lead to the most dramatic video. At 8 o'clock the gala got under way and continued nonstop until just after midnight. English-language CCTV offered a special edition of the gala. A host and two guests explained what was going on and related it to Chinese culture. English-language captions on the bottom of the screen translated the lyrics. The first series of songs reminded me of so many fortune cookies, with good fortune, happiness, prosperity, the usual stuff. Later on, the songs told love stories, glorified China, honored family, and gently taught moral behavior. One online site said, "No other cultural event serves as such rich fodder for water cooler conversation after Chinese families return to the office after spring festival." Paul and I especially enjoyed the acrobatics. Cirque du Soleil must be watching the show to see the newest stunts. One young boy stood on one leg on a man's head while wrapping his other leg around his own head. A 6-year-old girl did 40 flips in just a few seconds, every one perfect. Chinese have been selecting and training acrobats for 2,000 years, all focused on strength and balance. The English program's host explained that Chinese love noise, crowds, and bustle. We've noticed. It wears us down. Supermarkets hire what we call frenzy makers—girls who choke the aisles offering tastes of food, helping shoppers find what they want, and more generally, doing nothing other than keeping the place feeling buzzed. Grocery stores stayed unusually quiet during the official three days of the festival, with few frenzy makers anywhere. Those who work during the festival collect triple time, so perhaps frenzy makers became too expensive. After two hours the English edition of the gala went off the air. We changed channels and watched both the show in Chinese and the fireworks outside our 17th-story window. Firecrackers, connected on long fuses that blast away for several minutes, started before the sun set. In the old days fireworks warded off evil spirits, but now it seems they show off disposable income. On New Year's Day Paul and I walked to Green Lake Park and discovered that all of Kunming seemed to congregate there. On our way home we bought dumplings, the traditional festival food. Along with a billion Chinese, we toasted the New Year and its heralding of peace and harmony. Vicki Terhorst
Continue reading: Transportation In And Around Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic
I take the kite flyers as a metaphor for China. Apply high-tech to traditional hobbies. Play in a group, at appointed times. Stick to the rules, help each other out, and enjoy the process rather than the result. In a huge outdoor market a few miles from downtown Kunming, vendors sell live fish and live chickens, although they'll prepare them for cooking if asked. Others sell fruit and vegetables, some unrecognizable, especially the medicinal plants. In another section of the market one can buy dresses, baby clothes, cellphones and accessories, shoes, and fabric. Food stalls sell donuts, dumplings, noodles, and ham. In the midst of it all we saw a dentist working on a patient's teeth. Both dentist and patient seemed calm and unhurried, ignoring the chaos all around. If we need a dentist we'll go to one of the many modern dental clinics in our downtown neighborhood. Our favorite restaurant serves up two dozen or so different dishes from a steam table. Vicki and I just point—meat here, vegetables there. They serve it up, always with rice and warm vegetable broth on the side. We're not allowed to skip the watered-down broth. If we don't pick up a bowl, one of the helpful staff rushes over to our table with bowls in hand. With so much time here we've found several favorite restaurants and food stalls. Our problem is naming them. These places have Chinese names, Chinese addresses, I suppose, but Vicki and I must come up with our own code. We have the Alley Cafeteria, referred to above, across from Alley Soup and around the corner from Alley Cafeteria Two. We have Spicy Soup KFC, a soup stall below a Kentucky Fried Chicken. We have Helen Dumplings, a dumpling place around the corner from where our friend Helen took us last year. We have Food Court, Taiwan Food Court, and The Hump, in a youth hostel with the same name. We even have O'Reilly's Pub; the name says it all. For supermarkets we have a giant New Supermarket, recently opened next door, and a ritzy Parkson's across the plaza. Metro, a short subway ride away, has the best selection of imported goods. We even have Carrefour and Walmart, always crowded and frenetic, our least favorites. Kunming's streets come alive every day with locals rushing around, young lovers talking on cellphones, and families with young children everywhere. We saw a toddler fall, pick himself up, dust off, and get going again without so much as a glance at Grandma. Why look over there? She only helps out in a pinch. We read about Tiger Moms, who pressure their children to succeed. We read about competition. Yet around town we see so many people having so much fun. We see police everywhere, but, at least on the streets, they seem to rule with a light touch. We especially appreciate the traffic police doing their job. Chinese pay little attention to traffic rules. We've seen way too many accidents during our visit. I read somewhere that Chinese traffic accidents approach 10 times the norm. Kunming has special traffic lanes set aside for motorcycles and bicycles. Still, sidewalks are viewed as just another lane of traffic, in many ways preferred to roads. After all, sidewalks accommodate two-way traffic. Pedestrians come so far down the food chain that we (Vicki and I and others) can safely be ignored. I'm used to it; jumping out of the way of a motorcycle on sidewalks or crosswalks has become routine. Sidewalks, besides accommodating motorcycle and heavy pedestrian traffic, also allow for parking, motorcycle repair, pop-up shops, and food-cart vendors. Vicki's favorite cart serves up fried potatoes tossed with pungent spices. Everywhere Kunming bursts with activity. Merchants buy and sell, builders tear down and rebuild. A recent study of cities ranked Kunming the world's sixth most growing economy. Boomtown. We find Kunming's altitude (1,900 meters, or 6,234 feet, above sea level), restricted Internet, and lack of English speakers to be the major drawbacks. On the other hand, I have lots of opportunity to practice my limited Mandarin. Connecting to the Internet with a VPN gives us access to blocked Internet sites, including Live and Invest Overseas. Adjusting to the altitude is just a matter of time. Kunming: so far, so good. We like it here. Paul Terhorst
My imagination is a vivid one, but, now that I've had the opportunity to spend several weeks here, I have learned that Kashgar isn't really too far removed from my daydreams. Nomadic herders do tend to their camels in the sand dunes less than 100 miles from the city, many women do wear beautiful jeweled head-scarves and flowing gowns, cooking some of the finest mutton stew available in the world, as men in embroidered Muslim hats cook tasty kebabs and hawk intricately designed hand-woven carpets.
Coming here from Beijing was an experience in its own right. We had arrived in Datong, China, after leaving Mongolia. However, the trains had been booked up weeks in advance, and our only option was to return to Beijing, fly to Urumqi, then take the train due west for another 30 hours. The journey ended up taking us a full three days.
We were about an hour west of Beijing, in the air, when the desert first began. From that point until moments before we arrived in Kashgar on the train, we saw the harshest desert we had ever imagined. Across the Gobi and across the Taklamakan Desert, it's more than five times larger than the Sonora Desert in the United States. It seemed to go on forever. There were sand dunes, huge flat expanses, mountains, and badlands, yet for thousands of miles, we saw barely a bush or tree of any kind. We saw a sandstorm to the south that lasted for a couple of hundred miles. Apparently a small one, as we passed many miles of sand fences (similar to snow fences) that gave us a hint of how severe the weather here can get. In the summer, temperatures above 120 degrees Fahrenheit are common. In the winter, the mercury can dip below zero. As we got much closer to Kashgar, we at last saw signs of water--cotton, grapes, figs, and corn were planted, first in small plots, then in real fields. We started seeing a few trees and soon, rising out of the sand, we entered Kashgar.
This is China's far western frontier, the first city that you would arrive in if you were entering China from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Kyrgyzstan and one of the major stops along the fabled Silk Road. Kashgar is a cultural melting pot. The old town is filled with Uighurs, Chinese Muslims strongly influenced from Central Asia. Modern Muslim women, dressed in Western wear, walk alongside women in burkas, women in black gowns, women in brightly colored flowing robes, and the men are similarly disparate. Vendors selling sizzling-hot lamb kebabs, bagels, and mutton noodle soup compete for sidewalk space with carpet dealers, haberdashers, tea shops, musical instrument stores, and money changers.
Although Kashgar, China is popular with European tourists traveling the Silk Road, it's far enough off the tourist trail so that we feel quite conspicuous in our Western clothing. In Kashgar, our shoulders are covered and shorts are off-limits. Fortunately, the profound heat of mid-summer has passed, and the temperatures now are tolerable.
The Id Kah Mosque is in the center of Old Town in the hub of Islamic Kashgar. The grounds surrounding the mosque are expansive and kept perfectly clean. There are a few tourists here, and vendors set up to accommodate them. To one side of the mosque, there are horses, donkeys, and camels, with photographers happy to take your picture alongside them for a few Chinese yuan.
People seem to be remarkably friendly here, which is good because we know nothing of their language and most of them know little or none of ours (other than a few children who are happy to boisterously shout "Hello!" when they see us). Fortunately, most people understand Mandarin, so that's a small help for us.
We went to a wonderful little Uighur restaurant, and I asked for an English menu, which seemed to put everyone into a state of near-panic. At last, we reverted to a phrasebook that we were given at our hotel and managed to place our order--but not before every person working at this busy place had crowded around our table to hear us speak. They all nodded approvingly when we managed finally to successfully communicate with them. We learned that the thumbs-up sign is understood and very appreciated in this city.
The Uighur people have their own unique style of dress and don't even speak Chinese except as second language. They even have their own unofficial time zone, two hours earlier than Beijing time, constantly confusing, as "Beijing time" and local time are used interchangeably.
The spectacular Karakoram Pass, separating China from Pakistan, lies directly west of Kashgar and is said to be the highest border crossing in the world. The summit of the pass, at 15,840 feet, is certainly breathtaking. Barely visible from the city, you can see the foothills of the mountains that rise to altitudes above 25,000 feet. We went about halfway up this pass to Karakul Lake, past sand dunes as tall as mountains, active glaciers, and stunning glacial canyons.
Far from the China populated by the Han, it's a part of this country that few foreigners see. It's a long way to travel, but for intrepid, the journey to Kashgar is well worth the effort.
Wendy JusticeContinue Reading:
Image source: Anthony Maw
When Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, we read about massive improvements that the government had initiated in preparation for the Games. The subway system was being revamped, and the hutongs were reportedly being demolished, to be replaced with sleek, modern structures in an effort toward "urban renewal." When we planned our recent return visit, we had no idea how this new modern Beijing would measure up.
I'm happy to report that the changes we've seen are mostly for the better. The hutongs are still the heart and soul of Beijing. These are active neighborhoods with crowded little shops overflowing with sundries, sizzling meats being cooked on outdoor grills, children playing in the streets, and elders carting their daily vegetables back to their homes. You can look down countless alleys and find medieval mysteries surviving in the heart of the modern city. Not all of the hutongs from a decade ago still exist, but there are enough of them to provide Beijing plenty of charm.
The subway system is remarkable. For a mere 2 yuan (about 30 U.S. cents), you can ride the subway almost anywhere in the city. There are 13 different underground lines with clean and modern cars, easy-to-understand bilingual signs and announcements. This system has helped to alleviate some of the city's traffic problems, and, even now, more lines are being built. Most major streets seem less congested than we remember and most now have bicycle lanes, another improvement. Most motorcycles we saw run on electricity and so are nearly silent and less polluting than motorcycles with gasoline engines. Many Beijing city buses also are powered by electricity.
I can't say whether Beijing's new law prohibiting more than two flies from occupying a public restroom has been successful, although I did not see more than two flies in any restroom that I used, so perhaps they are having success with that ambitious scheme. We did notice, though, that there are many more public restrooms now than seven years ago, another improvement.
One of our errands while in Beijing was to go to the China International Travel Service to pick up some train tickets we had reserved over the internet while still in the United States. We arrived around lunchtime, so we asked the agent of this very official government travel agency if she could recommend a good Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood, one where the locals ate. She thought hard for a few moments, then said that hygiene and sanitation in many restaurants is "not good for Westerners" and gave us directions to McDonalds. We had a good laugh after we left (and ate elsewhere), though we couldn't help noticing how many Western chain restaurants have found their footing in Beijing as compared with 2005. We ate at several local Chinese restaurants that had either English menus or at least picture menus. Sometimes the staff seemed a bit terrified that we were there and that they would have to communicate with us, but it always worked out.
One thing we really enjoyed this trip was not being the center of attention. It seems that, in the past seven years, Beijingites have become more accustomed to seeing Westerners. We saw lots of friendly faces and a number of indifferent faces, but we experienced almost no open-mouthed gawking and no one asked to take our picture this time.
One other interesting change is how popular coffee has become since our last visit here. Back in 2005, we had either to search for powdered instant coffee or drink tea. This time, we found good coffee shops throughout the city.
We had a good feeling about Beijing this trip. The people seemed more welcoming, the neighborhoods more social, and the quality of life better. We saw fewer bicycles and more automobiles (though there are still plenty of bicycles and small motorbikes). As with any large city, Beijing still faces challenges, but we had the sense that the can-do attitude of the Chinese people will continue to make this city a better place to be.
There I was, on the ground, a bit stunned, with blood gushing out of my mouth and nose. A crowd gathered. Someone handed me a Kleenex, then another and another. I heard a voice say to Paul, in English, that I must go to the hospital.
Hospital? We don't speak Chinese. We knew very little about medical care in China. The U.S. Consulate warns that "Western-style medical facilities with international staffs are not widely available in southwest China."
But the young woman who suggested the hospital more or less insisted. She turned out to be a lovely, gracious, practical sort. She took charge with a let's-go-just-do-it attitude.
She and Paul helped me up. I found I could walk without painâ€¦whew. She put us in a taxi and rode with us to a neighborhood clinic-hospital with Western-style medical services. She even paid for the cab, refusing Paul's attempts to reimburse her.
She provided bilingual help at the hospital. We signed up at the front desk, paid a small fee, and the three of us filed into an examination room. Paul and I travel without travel/medical insurance. We prefer to pay cash for what we need in the moment we need medical help. In China, it turns out, hospitals don't accept U.S. insurance. All comers pay cash for treatment.
A young doctor looked me over and then chatted with the young woman, by now our guiding angel. I needed a scan of my nose. We went back to the lobby and paid cash for the scan. After paying, a technician ushered us into the scanning room...no waiting.
During the scan, our angel asked where we were staying. Paul gave her the hotel's business card. (We always grab a card when checking into a hotel.) Apparently hotels in China assume responsibility beyond sheets and towels, TV and internet, and beds and air-con. Soon an English-speaking young woman on the hotel's staff showed up. Now she took charge, again with a let's-go-just-do-it attitude. Great. And greatly appreciated.
After the scan, Doc, for Paul's and my sake, used his hands to vividly tell us my nose was broken. The doctor thought I might need surgery and insisted that I go to a major hospital to see an expert.
At first I balked. I needed time to think. The young woman from our hotel suggested we walk over to our hotel, two blocks away, and eat something. Once at the hotel we thanked the first angel who had helped us, and sent her home. I finally decided to adopt the Chinese just-do-it attitude and go to the university hospital. Paul got our passports, credit cards, and all the cash we had on hand. The young woman from our hotel arranged some food. And we were off.
At the university hospital the hotel staff worked the system. First we paid, again, a minor fee to get started. Then I saw a nose expert. She gave me a thorough exam and said I'd heal without any need for an operation. Again, whew! Next I went to the lab for a shot of antibiotics, and, finally, we headed back to the hotel.
Total charges for treatment, in the two different hospitals, amounted to pocket change--a dollar here, 50 cents there. The hospitals charged for materials--medicine, for example, and the scan and shots and so on. These charges amounted to about US$25 in total, very little. Doctors, treatment, and emergency room cost nothing at all.
All taken care of. I love the Chinese let's-go-just-do-it attitude. And I'm doing fine.
Vicki TerhorstContinue Reading:
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