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

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Put That In Your Pipe...

28 September 2005

Don’t worry Division of Family Services watchdogs, neither Bei nor her parents have succumbed to reefer madness. Yet. But this parent admits that the vision of a mellow Bei, giggling quietly in her room with a can of Pringles, listening to kid’s songs at full volume on our IPOD or puzzling delightedly through an audio recording of Yurtle the Turtle has some appeal. How much harm could it do??

And for you old time climbers out there, this shot taken along the trail at the local Lijiang climbing area might get your attention. It’s a wonder that anyone managed to find the ambition to actually drill 6 difficult climbing routes here. Or maybe this explains why there are only 6 routes in all of Lijiang despite the limitless limestone.

So in case you haven’t figured it out, Cannabis grows wild in the Yunnan Province although few, except foreign English teachers, seem to pay much attention to it. In Liming (see earlier post) we saw lots of cute and wizened old women happily puffing away on their pipes, and in the markets of Lijiang pipes and hukas are not rare, although cigarette smoking (tobacco) through enormous bongs is a common sight on the streets and may explain some of the paraphernalia.

Remember this happy lady from Liming??

And do you recall this "psycho bride" in an August post from Shanghai? Perhaps her bachelorette party included a trip to Yunnan.

I’ve asked a few people about the legality of cannabis in Yunnan, and I’m told that it is illegal but only if one is a dealer. And in that case, the consequences are dire. A horrifying bit of news from a web report by Kevin Nelson ( reports that on June 26, 2002:

China marks a U.N. international anti-drug day by holding rallies where piles of narcotics are burned, and 60 people are executed for drug offenses. Chinese authorities have executed hundreds of people since April in a crime crackdown labeled "Strike Hard" that allows for speeded up trials and broader use of the death penalty."

"Thousands of people attend a rally at a stadium in Kunming, capital of southwestern Yunnan province, where 20 suspected drug traffickers are sentenced to death, then executed at a separate location, with a bullet to the back of the head


A more thorough report by Robert C. Harp of the International Hemp Association (The Netherlands) suggests that:

“...there is very little consumption of Cannabis products for recreational purposes by either resident Chinese or visitors. Despite these facts, the Yunnan provincial government has instigated policies that confuse drug Cannabis ("marijuana") with industrial hemp. Since the spring of 1998, the growing of Cannabis for any reason has been prohibited, although Cannabis still flourishes in most parts of Yunnan. Confusion continues.”

Reading further:

There is only one location in Yunnan where Cannabis is used in a drug-related context. Feral Cannabis grows abundantly throughout the hills above Dali town, a popular tourist destination in western Yunnan. During the early 1990s, when the first backpacker tourists on the Dali-Lijiang-Tiger Leaping Gorge route saw feral hemp growing, they harvested small amounts, which they dried and smoked. The local Bai minority market women soon realized that they could harvest as much as they wanted of the naturally growing "marijuana" in the autumn and sell it to tourists all year long. The Dali Bai have no tradition of recreational Cannabis consumption and they do not have a recent history of hemp cultivation, although they were active opium producers before the founding of Modern China. The Bai market women also sell "hemp" clothing to tourists which is made from cloth imported from the commercial hemp producing areas of Yunnan and other provinces. Although hemp is not a traditional part of their culture, they realize that hemp sales are good business, as is selling "marijuana" to tourists. Small amounts of dried Dali Cannabis leaf and flowers are occasionally taken to Kunming and other areas of Yunnan by tourists, where they smoke it.

Eventually, Dali gained an obscure international reputation as a source of marijuana. Both High Times (1994) and Cannabis Culture (1999), recreational Cannabis magazines, spread the image of Dali as an attractive tourist destination for Cannabis smokers. In actuality, Dali and other feral Yunnan Cannabis contains very little psychoactive THC (less than 2% dry weight) and so is of very low potency compared to Western drug (2-25% THC) Cannabis (Clarke 1998). The perceived "high" of feral Yunnan hemp is induced more by wishful anticipation, combined with an exotic Chinese set and setting, than by its actual potency. It is truly a pity that misled Western travelers couldn't have enjoyed writing about one of their more characteristically Chinese experiences, rather than misinterpreting both Cannabis botany and Chinese culture.

Tourism is among Yunnan's most important and fastest growing industries, and Dali is one of Yunnan's most popular tourist destinations. Arresting tourists for marijuana possession would not assist Yunnan Province to bolster tourism. It will be interesting to see how the Dali situation is handled.

So there you have it. I imagine that with time the novelty of seeing lush marijuana plants growing on the College campus or along sidewalks right in downtown Lijiang will wear off, but for now it still turns the heads of us westerners.

BEI! turn down the IPOD! You'll ruin your ears!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Shibaoshan Excursion

27 September 2005

Next weekend is the start of our October break for National Days celebrating the birth of "the New China” in 1949. We plan to head out for the week to hike and travel north through the Tiger Leaping Gorge and onwards to Zhongdian, which marks the edge of Tibetan culture. All to say that there may not be any new posts for a couple of weeks after this one, though I will try to put up one more later this week.

Last weekend we celebrated the “Old China” with a trip to Shibaoshan (sure – bow – shan), a temple complex two and a half hours southwest of here that includes rare remnants 9th century Tang Dynasty stone carvings. One of the most heartbreaking aspects of modern China is the thoroughness with which over 5000 years of history was erased during the several years of the cultural revolution, so it is unusual to see incredible undamaged carvings like the ones at Shibaoshan. The area also includes Buddhist temples that are well-reconstructed versions of the old ones and, of special interest for Bei, large troupes of monkeys that scamper over the cliffs and temples en masse.

We spent Saturday afternoon exploring the three main temple sites and then slept in the small ancient village of Shaxi, nestled in a mountain valley below the temple mountain and surrounded by rice paddies. Sunday we explored Shaxi and then caught buses back to Lijiang in time to get our class preparations done.

The area is probably better shown with photos than with descriptions and here are some from our weekend:

This is the main temple site, built into this sandstone cliff overlooking a mountainous area dotted with shrines and other sites. A long stone staircase led through deep mossy woods to this place where monkeys outnumber people.

These Buddhas keep watch over monkeys and visitors.

Ellen keeps remarking that it feels like fall here. The weather is warm, the leaves aren't changing and at 25 degrees north latitude the sun isn't very low in the sky, so I think it must have to do with all of the red chilis hanging on people's balconies, the corn stalks drying in the fields and the last blooming sunflowers nodding their seed-laden heads. This is a typical sight here--ristras hung to dry. One forgets for a moment that this isn't Santa Fe.

Bei was delighted to have the chance to ride a horse up to the temple. We were told that it was a 1-hour hike and the thought of carrying Bei led us to the horses. The walk turned out to be a short 15 minutes but Bei had a nice ride and the horse owners made an hour's wage in a quarter of the time. In the end we were all happy.

The monkeys were all over the place. The males kept a cautious watch while the mothers showed us their babies.

One of the 9th century (or older) stone carvings. The characters on either side are apparently by a 15th century poet.

The grand views of the temples and statues are interesting but it is the details hidden in abandoned rooms or behind buildings that always capture my attention. This scene was off to the side of the main temple area.

And this is an adobe wall in Shaxi, the village where we spent a night.

This linen hanging was in a room in the main cliff temple. I think the characters mean to keep seeking.

This idyllic doorway was in the old part of Shaxi.

A wall in Shaxi.

Another wall in Shaxi -- layers of plaster peel away to reveal old plaster and faded characters.

A seldom used table saw at the temple.

A strange arrangement of brick, wall and stick near the stone carvings.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Dr. Ho, International Man of Mystery

20 September 2005

Dr. Ho during our visit to his home in Baisha.

Reluctantly I concede that no visit to Baisha, the small Naxi town about 10 km north of Lijiang, is complete without meeting the famous (infamous?) Dr. Ho, denizen of main street. This is born out in countless travel pieces on the web, in magazines, newspapers and books (e.g., The Lonely Planet China guide), on television and in film, all describing meetings, planned and otherwise, of travelers with the aging doctor.

You’ll recall (see earlier post) that several weeks ago Tony and I tested our then new bicycles with an afternoon ride to Baisha and a brief tour of the town and it’s environs. Because our tender butts were feeling the pain of bumping down the traditional stone main street, we dismounted and paused to have a look around with an eye towards cold beers and soft chairs at the Buena Vista Café—a well advertised restaurant catering to tourists in “midtown”.

As we stood gathering our wits about us and flexing our aching butts (to the extent that old butts flex), we were hailed by a funny aged man in a white lab coat gesticulating and chattering as he emerged from a shady enclave beside us, much as an ant lion would emerge from its sandy pit to collect unwitting ants that had slid into its trap. By the time we realized what was happening, our fates were sealed.

Dr. Ho is an eccentric and frantic man, with a manic son of boundless energy and a self-perpetuated reputation as the herbal medicine expert of Yunnan (and perhaps the world). Words like famous, distinguished, remarkable, and miraculous comprise much of his self-taught English vocabulary and are repeated rapidly as the Doctor leads you first across his patio and then into his house, both of which are wallpapered with newspaper clippings, testimonials, letters and business cards providing detailed proof of his importance in the world beyond Baisha.

Bruce Chatwin, the well-known British travel writer (In Patagonia; The Songlines), owns responsibility for the elevation of Dr. Ho from small town herbalist to international man of mystery. Chatwin described the doctor in a 1986 article in The New York Times as “the legendary Taoist Doctor of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain”, to the consternation of Tan Wee Cheng who wrote in a November 2002 travelogue that Ho is “a medical doctor [period] and there isn’t anything Taoist about him” perhaps alluding to his less than humble demeanor .

Once in Ho’s sitting room we are offered his traditional cup of tea (John Cleese, the Monty Python actor, reportedly commented after a visit, “Interesting bloke, crap tea.”) which we sipped quietly as Dr. Ho presented us with more testimonials describing the gratitude and curiosity of western medical doctors examining patients previously suffering from serious maladies, including cancer, who were cured as a result of the doctor’s herbs.

Although Dr. Ho’s English is functional, he soon runs low on vocabulary and passes us to his son, who springs into action like the animated Tasmanian Devil from the cartoons of my youth. Tony and I sip our tea and steal concerned glances at each other as the son presents further evidence of his father’s fame and prowess and dives headlong into a description of a visit from Michael Palin, the well known British humorist and travel documentarian (Palin has a television series that follows his global adventures). This includes repeated acting out of Palin appearing at their door, knocking politely and asking if he could come in. How (for God’s sake!!) could a person as famous (!!) as Palin be so low key (??!!), the son clearly wonders as he does push-ups and jumping jacks on the floor in front of us (I’m not exaggerating). He dashes behind a glass display case and mimics Palin on a toilet—apparently one with an excellent view—by crouching so that only his perky head appears above the glass, chin up, looking smartly from one side to another, to see the imaginary sights visible from the “number one toilet.” Much laughter all around as Tony and I take advantage of the noise and confusion to nervously forge an escape plan (can’t be late for dinner, family at home, looks like rain, etc., etc.) and eye the door, entertained but fearful of the open-ended nature of the monologue.

Ego pathology aside, Dr. Ho has had an interesting life. Jade Dragon (Yulong) Snow Mountain, according to Michael Palin’s travelogue, supports over 600 species of medicinal plants on its slopes and in the surrounding hills, and Dr. Ho has made a career of collecting and applying them first to local cases and then, as his fame spread, to visitors from all over the world. He or his family do all of the collecting, and the plants are processed in a courtyard behind his sitting room and stored in and adjacent room. I’d love to know more about them but the language barrier and our urge to flee stifled further questioning. Ho practiced in the area until the Red Guards smashed his practice and his home during the Cultural Revolution. He resumed working in 1985 and continues to work to this day, though it was unclear to us what proportion of his time is spent on medicine versus tourist entertainment. In either case, he has become a fixture in Baisha and a person that people come to see from all over the world.

One has to wonder though, what the typically self-effacing Chinese think of his frantic self-promotion, and whether he is lonely as a result. In the end, he and his son seemed like good-hearted people driven mad by fame (are you listening Tom Cruise?), and like other visitors before us, as we said our gracious goodbyes we marked the experience as positive. These ants though, blessed with partially developed reasoning brains, will be careful not to slip into the doctor's pit a second time.

Dr. Ho "working" while his son gyrated in front of us -- though he looked deep in thought, careful examination reveals that his brush is poised above a laminated news article about himself and any perceived intention to produce Chinese characters is purely theatrical.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Liming Trip

13 September 2005

We heard about the Liming (Laojunshan Mountain) area from an Israeli woman who has been in Yunnan for some time as a freelance writer and teacher. The trip from Lijiang to Liming, depending on whom you asked, was between 2 and 6 hours on roads that were good, impassable, fast, slow or dangerous. With a weekend beckoning and the freshmen students still not here to clutter our schedules, how could we resist. Our excitement rose as we read the description on the back of a ticket stub to the Laojunshan reserve:

“Laojunshan landscape fully embodied in variety of geology, biology and landscapes of “Three Rivers Coming Together” because of his mountain lakes in picturesque disorder, his splendid Dangxia landform, the well-protected biological system and the varieties of rare animals and plant resources.”

Reading on, one’s anticipation grows:

“It is the richest place with different astronomical phenomena in the early morning of the sun rises and falls three time a day. [!!!]”

And then, having successfully tempted you down roads of unknown length and danger, the ticket writers close the trap:

“Laojunshan Mountain is so mystical, magnificent, fluctuate, illusory and fantastic…Laojunshan mountain is waiting for YOU!”

On Saturday morning we were off – me, Ellen and Bei, Tony, Jacqueline, Suzanna and her son Ned. The first order of business was to find transportation and Jacqueline had negotiated a ride in a mini-van by the time we all arrived at the bus station (there is no bus to Liming, but vans for hire queue outside the station to look for riders). The driver reported good roads and a 2.5 hour drive, so we were off for the weekend with her and her 9-year old son. Total cost: 450 yuan (about $60) split between the bunch of us. As it turned out, she was not too far off and we arrived at the Liming entrance station about 5 hours later including several bathroom stops and a long “hot pot” lunch that included an entire cut up and boiled chicken (feet, head and all), some pig blood pudding and a few vegetables to soak up the animal protein. Ellen nibbled at rice and tomatoes.

Liming exceeded our expectations in many ways and, Chinglish aside, it is a remarkable place in a magnificent, fluctuating kind of way. The area is famous for its red sandstone cliffs and it’s reminiscent of a lush green Zion, but without the National Park Service or the crowds. The cliffs are a little smaller, but spectacular and extensive and the valleys are occupied by the Lisu ethnic group and some Yi people rather than by a parade of motor homes that you would see in our Zion. I know little about the Lisu. The Yi women, once they become mothers, wear elaborate square headdresses that perch above and behind their heads decoratively and to block the sun. Both groups appear to have a well-developed sense of fun and a keen ability to relax. The place is so nice that one could envision buying or renting one of the beautiful sandstone farms nestled in a perfect green valley rimmed by sandstone, and then hiking, climbing and exploring until even the thought of a career was a distant tickle inside your Western cranium.

Anyway, we spent Saturday and Sunday wandering around, eating good food and feeling a little heartbroken that the place was so beautiful and that we had to leave so soon. Here are some photos from the trip…

This is our van to Liming. It gets good mileage but it's a small space for us large westerners and for the noise created by a 4-year old and a 10-year old. This was at our lunch stop at a hot pot place outside of Shigu Town, near the Yangtze.

Baskets are everywhere here and people use them like we use day packs (and SUVs)--to carry things around. These old ones were stacked on a woodpile where we stopped to eat.

Here's the village of Liming at the downstream end of the main canyon.

An early morning view of the main canyon from above the village.

For you climbers out there--any interest in a Zion National Park with no routes established yet?

We went on a walk up the main canyon after getting set up in our Liming hotel. Bei helped keep these doggies movin'.

One has to watch for precariously swaying stones when you are in a fluctuating landscape like this one.

People love to give Bei fruit and this lady provided some fresh apples from one of the many trees that grow on people's farms.

Detailed eaves are common everywhere that we've been in Yunnan.

More baskets. These were stacked under a shed roof at a farmhouse in the main canyon.

Sunday is a festive market day in Liming. These boys were enjoying a swim in the cool stream that flows in from a side canyon.

Market day in Liming is busy. We noticed that men were wandering into town at 10 a.m. and were already well into their beers. By afternoon Tony remarked that "I think the whole town is pissed", and I think he was right.

Bei and Ellen inspect a pig head on it's way to market (This little piggy went to market??). Bei seemed unperturbed.

Suzanna, the Brit, bought a teapot for herself and a chain for Ned's bicycles at the Liming market on our way out to hike. The heavy metal overtones were unmistakable.

And this is my favorite. An old woman in Liming that we stopped to "chat" with. Like many of the people we saw, she's enjoying a good smoke, and it isn't tobacco. More on that when I blog on the medicinal plants and botany of Yunnan.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Wenhai Lake Hike

5 September 2005

The other day while we were having lunch in Baisha at a café run by a trekking guide, we read about a short hike to an “ecolodge” at a place called Wenhai Lake in the mountains forming the west side of the Lijiang valley. The lake is on the southern flanks of Yulong (Jade Dragon) Snow Mountain, the big peak to our north, and is currently part of a Provincial Nature Reserve that the Nature Conservancy is helping to upgrade into a National Reserve. We stopped into the TNC office in Lijiang and got a crude map of the area (it’s impossible to get good maps here) that was better than any other maps we have, and decided to take advantage of our still light schedules (freshmen classes start next week) and take a lazy three-day weekend trip. The hike up is about 4 hours and you can do sort of an open loop to avoid backtracking on the way down. Tony, an Australian teaching here (he teaches comparative religion at a university in Australia – studying Aboriginal religions) and Suzanna and her 10-year old son, Ned, from Wales, decided to come along.

Friday, after Bei got home from kindergarten, we all piled into a taxi and headed for the trailhead, about 6 or so miles north of here. After a bit of conflicting information on where to start, we found ourselves slogging in a slow, middle-aged sort of way, up a paved staircase that tunneled through pine trees and rhododendrons in a beeline for the valley rim 1500 or 2000 feet above. I carried Bei in the kid carrier and Ellen hauled our stuff in my climbing pack—thankfully we didn’t need to carry a lot since it’s consistently warm here and our target was a lodge where food and beds are provided.

After that first day, the weather was about as good as it gets during the rainy season (hardly any rain and quite a bit of sun) and we had a great time exploring around. Here are some photos from the trip.

Here we are, part way up the staircase in the rain. All of us got soggy. The hike was strenuous and raingear just made you sweat more.

This is Tony, the Australian. He's a good guy and fun to explore with. He worked in academia for many years and wrote 4 or 5 books on aboriginal cultures in Australia before burning out and taking time off to live in China. He only started smoking recently, but enjoys it.

Here's Ellen carrying Bei after we topped out above the giant staircase. It continued to rain, though the rain tapered off and it got nicer.

Trails, horses, cows, goats and the rainy season are perfect for Ellen's Keen sandals. At least the mud oozes out of sandles rather than staying inside.

We ran across this goatherd moving his herd back into the village of Wenhai Lake when we were almost there. First we passed him in a field at the top of the last hill down into town. He looked a little like Darth Vader in his black cape and we weren't sure whether he was friendly or not. Then he caught up to us and, from beneath the cape, produced a handful of sugar crystals for Bei and Ned to ease the last part of their journey.

This was taken from an upper deck at the Wenhai Ecolodge looking south towards Yulong Snow Mountain. The lodge using solar heat to make hot water and has a biogas generator as well. It was written up in the New York Time in December (I think) 2004 and listed as one of the 10 best ecolodges in the world by Outside Magazine in 2003. We found it to be quiet and rustic with no other guests. The food, cooked by a cooperative of Naxi locals, was great--freshly harvested mushrooms, potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplant and other greens along with fresh chicken eggs and pork. Total cost for food and lodging: $12.50 USD/day.

Here's our room on the second level. The view out the back window was toward Yulong Snow Mountain.

The lodge provided plastic sandals for wearing into the bathroom -- these were one of the strong points for Bei. If you want 4 year olds to come to your establishment, just provide a variety of large shoes for them to wear and, ideally, to scrub.

The standard Chinese broom collection.

The fences are made of vertical sticks woven together with long thin sticks. This view is through a fence towards the mountain.

The Wenhai Valley is dominated by Wenhai Lake which is apparently ephemeral--it grows to full size in the rainy season and then drains into the Karst in the dry season. There is lots of water in general in the valley--these channels are near the lodge. In December something like 70 species of migratory birds stop at Wenhai. We'll have to head up there then to see. There are also huge forests of rhododendrons to see in bloom in the spring.

I walked up to have a look at a limestone cave above the valley. Excellent climbing lines were everywhere, but the cave was seeping and mossy in the rainy season.

A Naxi woman taking a break. The village of Wenhai Lake is Naxi, but there are also Yi (another ethic group) villages around. Ellen hiked to a Yi village on Saturday with Tony while I hung out with Bei at Wenhai.

Bei, Ned and I went for a hike around the lake while Ellen and Tony were hiking and Ned's Mom was taking a break. The flats around the lake are lush with grass and grazed by horses, cows, pigs and this solitary yak that we approached for a photo. It was the first yak I've seen.

He charged! Ned jumped about 5 feet in the air and took off running. With Bei on my back, I stood my ground, waved my arms and made a loud and intimidating noise that apparently worked since I don't have any horn wounds.

On Sunday we enjoyed a gentle and beautiful walk out (4 hours) to Shuhe, the village near our apartment. It stayed dry the whole day for us.

Grazing pigs near the lake.

A short rest near the "Little Sea", a small lake beyond Wenhai Lake on our trail.

Lunch about 2/3 of the way down.

And finally, back to the restaurants and tourists (and hungry dogs) of Shuhe.