Ken, Ellen and Bei in China

Ken, Ellen and Bei spent a year in Lijiang, Yunnan teaching English. This is a place where we kept in touch with everyone while we were away. If you'd like to comment we'd love to hear from you on e-mail. Send to You can view more photos on Flickr at

Location: Laramie, Wyoming, United States

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Checking Out Lijiang

28 August 2005

We've been in Lijiang for just a few days now and already I'm way behind on getting photos organized and put up here. We've been busy--in a kind of relaxed way. Since arriving here last Tuesday we've set up our nice little two room apartment, learned how to buy food in open markets, purchased bicycles, started doing laundry by hand, visited villages and strained for glimpses of the mountains through rainy season clouds. Classes start here this week, so our lives will get a little scheduled and a lot busier, but hopefully not TOO busy. Ellen doesn't start teaching until September 13th or so, since her classes are all for freshmen and they are in military training until then. I'm not so lucky and my first classes are on Tuesday. For now I'm teaching 2 sections of writing and 1 of "English newspaper and magazine reading". Maybe I'll just log onto the New York Times and let them read for 2 hours each week while I drink coffee? I'll pick up additional oral English hours after the 13th. The campus is new and pretty nice--a little sterile relative to city life in China, but quiet and well appointed. We're about 3 or 4 km north of Lijiang itself (a quick bus ride on Bus #11 for 5 cents) and a few km from some other small villages that we really like. We have the option of someday moving off campus and we may take it next semester but for now this feels comfortable.

I'll post up some photos below to give you a sense of the place--it's beautiful and we're just starting to scratch the surface so I'm wired about being here. Ellen shakes her head as I scheme about where we can rush off to each day since we have a whole year to take it in, but I can't help myself.

Here's a view from the hill behind campus looking southwest. Campus is the closest group of buildings (mostly white)and Lijiang is down to the south. There are some old pagodas on the very tops of the hills above Lijiang that we haven't hiked to yet. The valley itself is mostly agricultural. They grow lots of corn and rapeseed (canola) and some other plants too. More on that in a later blog.

It's the rainy season and it rains almost every day although the last couple have not been too wet. These umbrellas were left outside a classroom meeting on campus.

This is about as much as we’ve seen of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, the 18,000 foot peak 30 km north of Lijiang. The view reminds me of being in Jackson and looking north to the Tetons except that there is 10,000 feet of relief instead of 6,000 feet and the peak is part of the Himalayas which sweep northward and westward from here into Tibet. And house prices are lower.

Lijiang is divided into two parts--new town and old town. The new town is a typical working Chinese city--pretty ugly with lots of concrete buildings and cell phone stores. The old town is utterly different. No cars are allowed on the narrow stone streets that follow clear flowing streams channeled within stone canals. The negative is that it is touristy and big groups of mostly Chinese and Japanese tourists wander around behind flag waving leaders shooting video of each other striking poses with people dressed in traditional clothes. It's a little hard to take. But if you wander very far into the town you lose most of the tourists and can enjoy the beauty of the place. This first picture is of Ellen and Bei high in old town away from the tourists.

People here love kids and Bei is an attractant for meeting some great people. This guy with his little boy had fun checking Bei out.

Bei is loathe to walk very far even though in all other circumstances her energy is boundless. Ellen and I take turns carrying her around and she's starting to feel heavy at 32 pounds. We finally bought a backpack child carrier at an outdoor store here which is easier to carry than throwing her on your shoulders. We also bought a seat that goes on the back of our bikes so that she can ride with us on excursions.

The open market in new town is our source for vegetables now that we're learning how to buy things there. These little fellas aren't on our shopping list yet. And I'm hoping not to be presented with any in awkward eating situations. They also have the ubiquitous bowls of chicken feet and some ancient dusty pig meat in the market. The latter was wrapped in old cloth with just the little pig hooves sticking out and we figure it must be some kind of aged ham. We haven't tried that either.

Our most recent discoveries are some smaller villages close to campus. The first one I found is called Shuhe (Sue-huh -- the local accent doesn't use the 'sh' sound) and is about a 15 minute bike ride from our apartment. It is somewhat touristy too, but not nearly as bad as old town Lijiang and the setting is gorgeous. The town sits up against the hills on the west side of the valley (we are on the east side here on campus) and the streams that flow through town are spring fed and absolutely clear. This first shot is a bridge in town with some tourists (umbrellas) and horses (4 legs). The horses are used both for real work and to give tourists rides.

Here's a street scene in Shuhe. The water is channeled all over town and follows these beautiful stone walkways.

I walked through Shuhe town and out into the fields to the north one day and met 4 young girls playing there. This was the littlest one and she let me take her picture. Then they followed me around and had me take their pictures in various settings after which I could show them the shots on the back of my digital camera which they thought was great.

The houses are all roofed with tiles like these that I found stacked beside a shed in the hills behind town.

One street follows a clear flowing stream and sports a row of restaurants geared towards tourists. This is the beer cooler and I tested a beer for coldness. It passed. If you order chicken with dinner the cook runs up the hill and returns with a freshly killed bird that he cleans in the stream beside your table before taking it into the kitchen. Bei has learned that meat doesn't originate in plastic wrapped supermarket packages.

About 5 km north of campus is another little village called Baisha that is billed as the ancient center of the Naxi culture. It's less affected by tourists than Lijiang or Shuhe though there is some tourism there. I don't know much yet about the Naxi and will write more later when I do. They apparently have a loose matrimonial society in which women have multiple lovers and no real affinity to a husband. On the whole everyone seems to be enjoying themselves.

A doorway in Baisha.

These are some typically dressed old Naxi women. They hang out like this on street corners though they also work really hard. There is a lot of hauling around of big baskets laden with sticks, pine needles and other things.

Here's a Naxi women hauling a typical load. Tony, an Australian teacher new here like us, told me that a friend of his in another part of China saw a woman carrying a big basket and noticed that smoke was coming out of it. He agonized a little and decided that he should alert her that her basket was on fire (maybe she'd picked up some still glowing coals?). Upon hearing the news the woman replied, "my basket is NOT on fire. My husband is having a smoke". I haven't seen anyone hauling their husbands around in this part of China but nothing would surprise me.

Here's another typical load (pine needles).

The Naxi our know for their "orchestras" and this little farmer band was playing in Baisha for the benefit of the tourists and for a small donation. Apparently the Naxi musical history is rich and draws from a Taoist liturgical tradition that I know nothing about. I'll probably learn more as time goes on.

So, that's a quick look at the area within biking distance. I'm looking forward to getting below the touristy surface and into some of the more remote places around, but for now we have plenty to explore close by.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

You Know Urine China When...

25 August 2005 (Lijiang, China -- reconnected to internet today)

Riding a train for two days across the breadth of southern China is something that few westerners have the opportunity to experience and I could post flowery prose about the miles of rich green rice paddies, glimpses of golden grain drying on cottage roofs in mountain villages and vignettes of daily life captured through dirty train windows. But what I’d like to focus on is urine, because it captured a lot of our energy during the course of the 44 hours we spent on Train number K79 from Shanghai to Kunming.

Train toilets in China are not unique (to China) in the sense that they are of the “squat” variety which means that instead of having an elevated porcelain toilet bowl like we’re used to in the West, there is a stainless steel hole, roughly the shape of a keyhole (but slightly larger), mounted in the floor into which one eliminates waste with better or worse accuracy depending on experience, age and prostate fitness. In fixed locations it is unclear where the waste goes when it leaves the toilet, but on trains it goes directly onto the tracks. Out of some ironic sense of sanitation, the bathrooms are locked shut at train stations to reduce the concentration of waste on the ground where there is a relatively high concentration of people. Sometimes you sit at train stations for a half hour or so loading and unloading passengers and inevitably during this time Bei needs to go badly, but that’s another story.

Imagine then, this keyhole in the floor of a very small room equipped with a tiny sink (water source to aid in flushing if one has the energy). The object for a man is to stand roughly in front of the hole while the train lurches and rocks along and direct urine into the tube that delivers it unto the tracks. For women the challenge (and I’m thankful to be male) is to squat over the hole while holding onto a handle attached to the wall about 2 feet off the floor. The result of all of this is that more or less 75-80% of all of the urine produced on the train goes out onto the tracks where it belongs and the remaining 20-25% goes onto the floor around the hole so that it can be collected on the bottoms of your shoes and then tracked down the hallway back to your compartment.

The next relevant information is that rather than designing the train hallway with an easily cleanable hard surface floor, the relatively plush soft sleeper cars are outfitted with nicely carpeted hallways which are impossible to clean any operational way. With toilets situated at either end of the approximately 60 foot long cars, the urine concentration in the carpet fits an inverted normal curve with the highest concentration at the ends of the cars and the lowest (but not inconsiderable) concentration in the middle. Our cabin thankfully was near the middle, but that was little comfort as Bei and her 7-year old her train friend, Luo Hao, rushed manically from one end of the car to the other for 8 to 10 hours each day, collecting urine on their often bare feet like bumblebees collecting nectar, and then rushing into our cabin to deposit it, as if to feed us, the queen bees, a special diet of ammonia.

For the first 24 hours we struggled hard—“BEI. Shoes!”—but eventually realized that struggle is useless and grudgingly allowed our circumstances to wash over us like a shower. Then, resigned, we turned our energy back to watching the blur of the green rice and mountain villages of southern China roll by, wishing that the sun didn’t have to go down so that we could see it all in the light.

Here's the toilet -- a bird's eye view.

Here's the carpeting. I can't believe it's still blue.

Here are a couple of shots of the urine vectors--Bei and Luo Hao, her best boyfriend on the train. Note the location of their feet in the second shot. That's my bed.

Here are the tracks. That's where some of the urine ends up.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Zai jian Shanghai

20 August 2005

It's Saturday morning here in Shanghai and this afternoon we catch our 2-day train to Kunming, Yunnan. From there we'll get a ride or catch a bus for the last 6 hours up to Lijiang. After three weeks in steamy, frenetic, crowded Shanghai we're excited to get out and see something beyond the forest of apartment buildings and skyscrapers. We head into the outback with but a pound of Illi coffee, purchased at a western grocery to replace the two pounds of ground coffee we brought from the States. If you don't hear from us again, we're out of coffee, unable to wake up and stored in a lost luggage room somewhere in Central China.

I'm not certain when we'll be connected again--I imagine not until we get settled in Lijiang next week sometime. I'll post up a few final photos from our last few days here--the obligatory group photos and some others. I can't say that I'll miss Shanghai but the time here has been great and it was a good way to start our year.

I passed this window display across from Shanghai University every day on my way to the subway. Marriage anyone??

Speaking of the subway--here's my view of a typical ride.

Here's our group photo from the high school where we taught.

And here's the teaching group after our final banquet and before we scatter across China.

These are a few more photos from around Shanghai--street shots and some shots from the Jade Buddha Temple.

Car seats are considered less necessary here than they are in the U.S.

Here's Bei at the Jade Buddha Temple with her mistress, Megan. Megan decided to fly to her school instead of taking the train with us and Bei was crushed. She cried for 40 minutes.

This photo is of rooftops at the Jade Buddha Temple--looking out the window in the previous photo.

Here's a bike that was parked near our hotel/dorm here.

We'll post again when we can!

Tuesday, August 16, 2005


16 August 2005

The last few days have been busy and we're getting pretty excited about heading for Lijiang. Shanghai is relentlessly hot, humid and crowded. Traveling around on public transport is like a sweaty rugby match and a lot of the time Bei is the ball. We call her our little space heater as we shuffle with the crowds, carrying her 30+ pounds on our shoulders. We're headed out of here on Saturday by train to Kunming, the capital of the Yunnan Province. It's MUCH cooler there and it sounds great.

Last weekend we went on some excursions and I'm just pasting in some photos since I've got to run off and get ready for our day. We're still doing the teaching practicum and tied up with class in the afternoon.

On Saturday we went to a place in Shanghai called the Yuyuan Gardens. It's a traditional garden surrounded by shopping. My main impression is of thousands of people jossling around to squeeze through narrow passages in search of the Chinese equivalent of rubber tomahawks. Bei had fun there though--especially checking out the huge, overfed goldfish in the garden ponds.

After we left the gardens we went on a one hour tour along the Huangpu River. A one-hour tour...(where's Gilligan?). It was great--fun to see the boats and a little bit of the life of river people and great to put some water between us and the crowds.

This is Bei's new best friend, Megan. Bei is in love with Megan. Luckily, Megan is going to ride the train with us to Kunming, so Bei will have a friend besides her boring old parents. Then we'll part company as we head to Lijiang and Megan heads further up into the mountains to her teaching town.

After the river cruise we headed to the top of the old Peace Hotel on the waterfront for a drink at the rooftop bar. It was windy up there and almost cool! I had a beer and a piece of apple pie with bread for crust.

On Sunday we went to a traditional water village / tourist hotspot west of Shanghai. The town was interesting--it's built around canals and waterways. It was fun to sit in the shade and people watch.

Here's Bei checking out some cute little food.

A traditional and expert paper cutter made Bei a paper snake since she was born in the year of the snake.

Bei shot this photo of watchful parents.

Friday, August 12, 2005

A Dark Side of Shanghai

13 August 2005

Markets, temples, stores, food, and the routine of daily life in China are fascinating --maybe especially when it is all so new (though a long-time expatriate here told me that he is still fascinated after 20 years and that life here is like peeling an onion--each layer just reveals something new to explore). But disturbing things happen too that are maybe worse when you don't know if what you are seeing reflects an attitude shared by many or individual aberations of a few played out in a sea of people where life is very public. I've seen three things here that have bothered me the most and that I can't find context for yet.

The first was early in our trip. We needed notebooks and pens and stopped at a stationary store across the street from the campus of Shanghai University where we are living for these three weeks. The store was small as most are--with two rows of paper supplies in a space about the size of a single car garage. As is common, the family that owned the store was busy helping customers while living their daily routines in the same space. In the front of the shop, hunched over one of the counters, was a little boy--maybe 7 or 8 years old--working hard on his homework. He painstakingly filled little squares on the page of a notebook with Chinese characters while his mother, a woman in her early 30s, monitored his progress with focused intensity. Without warning (from my perspective) and apparently from disgust with the boy's work, she started screaming at him and then slapped him HARD in the head. The boy didn't speak one word--he just continued to write, but big tears rolled down his face. It was heartbreaking. His father, who was also there, appeared to try to step up to the boys defense verbally, but the shrewish woman laid into him as well and he quickly backed down without a fight.

So what was going on here?? Child abuse played out in public where much of Chinese life happens? Is this just like in the U.S. but more hidden in our society? Maybe as disturbing as the abuse for me was the lack of shame about it from the woman who was un-cowed by being watched slapping her little boy. I think about the uproar in the U.S. a year or so ago when that woman whacked her kid as she put him/her into a carseat in a shopping center parking lot and was captured on video--remember that?? It was a national media event.

The second anectdote happened on the Bund yesterday morning. The Bund is a walking area along the Huangpu riverfront in downtown Shanghai. Famous for tourists as a place to view the Shanghai skyline (see photos below) it is also popular with locals. I arrived very early (4:30 a.m.) to take photos of the sunrise and was surprised to find young couples apparently greeting the day after being up all night on the town, as well as older people doing exercises, flying kites and enjoying the relative cool of the morning. There were homeless people there too--sleeping on benches and on the ground along the polished stone walkway that follows the curve of the river. As the day got underway and I wandered up the Bund, I was startled by the clatter of a metal can hitting the pavement as a youngish man, apparently drunk or otherwise trashed, stumbled and fell, dropping the empty can that he was carrying. People seemed disturbed as they watched the scene, but the man picked up his can, stretched out in the middle of the Bund, and passed out. Shortly afterwards, a group of about 5 fit looking Chinese yuppies came down the Bund on a jog and one of them literally jumped over the man which he thought was hilarious and he and his buddies yucked it up as they continued past me on their run. What was going on here?? The absolute lack of emphathy of the apparently well off runner for the drunk was startling. I watched other people in the area just after this happened and some seemed disturbed as well, so maybe this guy was just an asshole. On the other hand, shortly afterwards a family posed for a cheerful photo for a father who backed up to frame hsi shot, almost stepping on the man as he stood with his camera to capture the smiling family, all oblivious to the man.

Finally, last night while downtown for dinner we were approached for money by a very cute little girl about Bei's age holding a tin can. This is apparently big business (according to a Chinese friend here) and parents or other organizers direct these cute little girls because they are so good at getting money.

Maybe people in big U.S. cities see things like this every day too? I honestly don't know and I honestly don't understand where this all fits in with people's sense of normal or not normal, shameful or accepted. Maybe we'll get some insights eventually. We've certainly also seen a great deal of kindness from people towards one another and us, so these anecdotes stand out as exceptions rather than common sights.

Here are some photos from the Bund--a more optimistic view.