Archive for August, 2007

Where have all the flowers gone?

Monday, August 27th, 2007

Jade Dragon MountainLijiang Old TownTired festival folkFirst Bend of the JinshaNaxi musicianOne of those loose Naxi womenBaisha villageRapids in Tiger Leaping Gorge

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The tale goes like this. During the Cultural Revolution, when intellectuals were sent to the countryside for a little re-education, Yunnan Province was regarded as the ultimate boondock, the place for the most incorrigible of intellectuals. Then the old guy died, and things began to relax, and the exiles drifted back into the universities and clinics of mainstream Chinese cities and societies. But not those sent to Yunnan. Being intellectuals, some were smart enough to know a good thing when they saw it. The climate was great (I left Hangzhou at 32 ºC and arrived in Kunming at 20 ºC), the air breathable, the landscape beautifully alpine, the people not really Chinese, and it was a long, long way from Beijing.

Thus was Yunnan discovered as the cool place to be. And there were other pheromones at play. There was the mystique of once matriarchal society, where finding an economically secure husband was not the only thing on a girls’s mind. The province is at the narrow end of the funnel for southeast Asian dope into China, and we all know that intellectuals are hippies at heart. You can get a decent cup of coffee there, presumably thanks to a Muslim heritage, instead of wimpy green tea. Or for the really hairy-chested, there’s yak butter tea.

So what if you can see the Great Wall from space? Yunnan’s the place for my holiday.

When I say I was not disappointed, don’t take me wrong. Okay, so Kunming, the provincial capital, beyond cool air and good coffee, is so-so, and its trademark Dian Chi lake so polluted it doesn’t make the charts. Okay, so the matriarchies have been replaced solid, Han patriarchy. But there are many charms. Its “Stone Forest”, though, a bizarre karst landscape a couple of hours drive from the city, impressed this traveler (who had not previously visited such geological formations.) And it gets better.

Lijiang is/was the heartland of the Naxi people. Separated from the new town by a low ridge is the old town, a warren of narrow streets and alleys, all off limits to motor vehicles, and lined with sturdy, wooden, two-storey structures, and flushed — I choose the word with deliberation — by mountain-fed streams, fanned out through all parts of the old city. There’s the Naxi music hall, which resurrects traditional music, with it roots in the 14th century or so, and which, if I counted correctly, boasts six octogenarians in a troupe of thirty.

One suspects a element of fakery from the Naxi-costumed sales girls in the over-abundant tourist shops (it would really have been nicer had they left a few structures in original shape as museum pieces, or, god forbid, as actual residences), but when, at the culmination of their mid-summer festival, thousands of traditionally bedecked natives descended on the town to parade and sing and dance, I was convinced the not even Cecile B. de Mille or Zhang Yimou could stage that.

The broader environs of Lijiang are spectacular. The “Jade Dragon Snow Mountain” dominates as the valley floor narrows to the north. The Jinsha River, the main tributary to what becomes the great Yangtze, rushes down from the Tibetan plateau, alternately in lush valleys and narrow gorges, in what “should” be a southerly course, taking it, in parallel to the Red and Mekong Rivers through Indochina to the South China Sea. But then does a one-eighty at the “First Bend”, and winds up traversing China’s midriff to empty into the Pacific at Shanghai. Just downstream, long before it enters the famous Three Gorges (infamously dammed), it negotiates the “Tiger Leaping Gorge” , enraged between ranges rising 3000 meters above its rapids, themselves at 2500 meters above the sea.

Granted, in August it’s all fog-bound and drizzly. But we modern intellectuals only get to the countryside during semester breaks, not like in the good old days.

When you really need to get away from the tourists, the druggies, the loose Naxi women, and the natural spectacles, you can always rent a bicycle, and zigzag your way up the valley floor. You’ll see things you’ll never see in Kansas.

Sea Dragons

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

Halong BayEvening anchor in HalongFruit vendorHalong viewBoat dining

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You probably associate the Gulf of Tonkin with the first phoney pretext for a president’s taking America into undeclared war on a foreign country. (Perhaps I’m too young to know of earlier ones. Mexico? For those even younger than I, know that honest-faced Colin Powell’s glossy Power-Point presentation to the UN assuring us of Iraq’s possession of wmd’s was not the first such pretext.) Less ephemeral than the phantom Vietnamese attack on American warships are the hundreds of limestone mountain tops jutting out of the Gulf of Tonkin in Halong Bay — where the dragon descended to the sea. It’s an errily beautiful area which really has to be explored by boat to be appreciated. (If you’re not ready to hop a plane to Hanoi, at least check it out on Google-Earth, or rent “A Beautiful Country”, a Vietnamese film from 2004, for a vicarious look.)

The wimpy way to get there is to sign up for a package tour in Hanoi; do the three-day / two-night version or better. Though an Australian friend opines that maritime hitch-hiking works well.

Our boat accommodated 14 guests with dining deck, cabins below, and sun deck above. A daily swim was simply a matter of dropping anchor and jumping in. We managed a couple of terrestrial hikes, to a panoramic view from a mountain top on the largest island, Cat Ba, and to a huge cave discovered first in 1919. Another day we stopped at one of the floating villages that dot the bay — for the most part the mountains rise so steeply from the sea as to preclude land-based fishing villages — to avail ourselves of kayaks, and thus to gain access to a sandy swimming cove and a completely secluded bay entered through a small, natural tunnel in the limestone rock. Enchanting is the only word that comes to mind.

I can’t give you figures for the impact of Vietnam’s developing tourist industry on the country’s economy, but believe it to be substantial. The logistics of transportation and finding “safe” (hygienically, not physically) restaurants and lodging, for the non-Vietnamese speaker, are probably best left to the tour operators — of which there is an abundance of these in Hanoi; you’ll have more trouble avoiding them than finding them.

But why so few Americans among the throngs? Brits, Dutch, French, Spanish, Italians, even a few prissy Germans, have taken the plunge. And among the residual benefits of sloughed colonialism are excellent coffee and baguettes. I didn’t perceive so much as a whiff of anti-Americanism. To appropriate an Atlanta slogan, the Vietnamese are too busy to hate. And if, in a few moments of reflection, your conscience might pick you a bit, that’s a not so bad.

War Reparations

Sunday, August 26th, 2007

Hanoi’s Lake Hoan KiemStreet vendorMotosBalcony viewTemple of Learning

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Back at the keyboard after a three-week vacation in China’s Yunnan Province and Vietnam.

Which border to step across was open to taste: Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar all abut. But, naturally, I chose Vietnam. I have a long relationship to Vietnam. I had earlier taken pains — all the pain of an academic deferment — to avoid going there, while my country was bombing it back to the stone age (as the freshman war-planners Cheney and Rumsfeld were wont to say way back then, at least before we lost the war). So my relationship is a Dagwood-sandwich of guilt, resentment, self-righteousness and moral debt. All drenched in irony: guilt for the consequences of a war I actively opposed; resentment of those who closed the gates of their consciences and flew away scott-free on that last helicopter in 1975; righteousness in thinking that choosing to spend my tourist dollar in Vietnam would cancel the debt. Guilt is as sticky as napalm.

And so, with all that baggage, I strode down the “nothing to declare” line in Hanoi airport out into to streets of the now sovereign capital.

That is poetic license. One who strides carelessly into Hanoi’s streets will most certainly be struck down by a “moto”, an apparently kamikaze swarm of greater- and lesser-powered motorcycles that ceaselessly ply the streets, dozens abreast, each serving and jockeying for advantage, tooting, and disregarding pedestrians, when they are not parked on the sidewalk blocking your path and offering their services as conveyance to you for hire. So move individuals, hugging couples, families of four, and all manner of cargo, often one-handed (one needs the other for that important mobile call) and not a helmet in sight. I couldn’t get out my camera quickly enough to snap the one carrying a coffin cross-wise the back carrier. I wonder if it was full or empty. These are the indelible terms of endearment of the streets of Hanoi.

Even someone so sensitive and sympathetic as I soon becomes calloused to the stream of micro-capitalist vendors on the streets. Fruit, water, bread, basket-ware, postcards, souvenirs, ride-offers, restaurant hawkers. shoe shiners. “No, thank you” soon gets contracted to “No”, which finally gives way to a curt, dismissive hand gesture.

Those with a command of English (not a few, though French is passe’€€€€) demand more engagement. “Do you mind if I practice my English a little with you?” (How can you dismiss that?) Lake Hoan Kiem forms a central park in old-town Hanoi, close to my hotel, and I relaxed there every evening among the natives, young and old, who also enjoyed the relative quiet. A favorite spot also for the let-me-practice-my-English gambit, which, after a few minutes’ practice culminated in “would you be interested in ….?”

One evening a woman beckoned from a park bench; she would like to speak English with me. As I approached, it was impossible to overlook a missing leg. We chatted for a bit: American?, how long had I been in Vietnam?, first time?, what had I visited? “Flower” she gave her name as. With the polite introductions over, I got right to what was on my mind, half knowing what the answer would be: could I ask how she lost her leg? 1972, she was fifteen, stepped on a land-mine. Even with the benefit of premonition, the best I could muster was “Oh, I’m so sorry!” Then followed that up with a few murmurings on the tragedy of the war. But Flower wasn’t interested in buying into my guilt trip; she had her own commodities for sale. “Would I like to buy a magazine?” she asked as she pulled a magazine out of her shopping bag. It looked to be the only one she had; something like “Healthy Living”, English, not a pristine printing. It was not a time for haggling over price. Here’s fifty thousand Dong for the magazine and the interesting conversation; but you keep the magazine, I really won’t have the time to read it. After a few rounds of please-you-must-take-it-no-I-really-don’t-need-it she relented, and stuffed the magazine and fifty-grand into her bag. Her beautiful face and deep eyes showed a hint of consternation. At losing the argument or the leg? The former, I think; her dignity proscribed her taking something for nothing.

Three dollars in war reparations. Not a record to be proud of. But, then, back home in Hangzhou, I caught NPR’s Saturday Edition to hear may-be-presidential candidate Thompson declaring that he doesn’t apologize to anyone for America’s foreign behavior.